Keyboard maestro Chuck Leavell is certainly best known for his incredibly steady decades-long association with the Rolling Stones. He originally gained notoriety for being a member of the Allman Brothers Band, adding some fine piano licks to the early ’70s Southern Rock anthems “Jessica”, “Ramblin’ Man” and “Win, Lose or Draw” during his brief tenure in the band.
When not sitting in on studio sessions for diverse artists such as John Mayer or Eric Clapton, globe-trotting with the Glimmer Twins, or relaxing at his majestic Charlane Plantation, Leavell lectures on environmental conservation, best exemplified by his Mother Nature Network. And occasionally he will perform solo concerts backed by the Randall Bramblett Band.
However, when the Georgia-born musician traveled to the Southeast corner of his home state for a benefit spotlighting GraceWay Recovery, a non-profit, faith-based, long-term substance abuse and addiction treatment center for women, fans were treated to an unusual, memorable experience – Leavell opted to go completely solo without a backing band.
During his concert at the Albany Municipal Auditorium in Albany, Leavell brought his career full circle before a near-sellout crowd for 90 minutes. His well-chosen setlist (by the way, the pianist assembles every Stones’ setlist) was sprinkled with choice cuts by the Stones, Allmans, Hank Williams, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton.
Playing a famous Steinway piano used by none other than Ray Charles, Leavell also indulged in his admiration of the blues and added a few original instrumentals for good measure, including two originally recorded by Sea Level, the blues/jazz/rock fusion band formed by Leavell after the Allmans initially disbanded.
Leavell is the consummate showman, providing easy-going banter that didn’t sound rehearsed to death like Paul McCartney tends to do. He is comfortable in his own skin and an all-around crowd pleaser. As Leavell tends to stay in the background during Stones’ concerts, it was enlightening to realize that he can indeed carry a tune and a show all by himself.
The pianist was very appreciative, thanking the community and the GraceWay Recovery foundation numerous times. He even gave a shout-out to the bakery that helps to sustain the recovery program, noting that “Rosie (my wife) and I stopped by the Bread House today and loaded up on cookies and sweet bread.”
While folks are likely aware of Leavell’s impressive piano chops, one facet of the performer’s kaleidoscope that rarely receives much attention is his keen penchant for storytelling.
What follows are vivid Leavell anecdotes from that special evening, including his admiration for country music and Hank Williams, why he decided to record a tribute to the blues masters of the piano, the secret to a successful marriage, the songs he wrote for the women in his life, and a reflection about touring with George Harrison during a 1991 sojourn in Japan.
Fortunately, the best is saved for last, as Leavell gleefully recalls the time he recorded the Eric Clapton Unplugged album before a live MTV audience in England. A diamond record with over 10 million units sold in the USA, it is by far the best-selling album sporting an appearance by Leavell.
During Clapton’s cover of the traditional blues standard “Alberta, Alberta”, the guitarist went so far as to name check Leavell before a solo. Shortly after it was released, Leavell was on the phone with a lady whose six-year-old son happened to get very excited every time he heard the song. The pianist was in for the surprise of his life when he found out why…
Chuck Leavell in Concert: The Storyteller
Hank Williams Country By Way of the Rolling Stones
“One of the great things about working with the Stones is that they have fun with different kinds of music, whether rock and roll, honky tonk, funk, or reggae. Every now and then they do a bit of country. One that we don’t do so often with them is called ‘Dead Flowers’…
“How can you talk about country music and not mention the greatest country music writer and probably best performer of all time, Hank Williams? That man certainly knew what he was doing. ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ is a masterpiece.
“When Norah Jones had that superb arrangement of ‘Cold Cold Heart’ [Come Away with Me, 2002], she succeeded in bringing Hank Williams to the attention of the general public. A lot of people would have never known anything about him if it wasn’t for Norah.”
Back to the Woods
“My latest album, Back to the Woods, is a tribute to the pioneers of blues piano, generally unsung heroes from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s eras, respectively. They’re not really household names…people like Leroy Carr, Cow Cow Davenport, and Little Brother Montgomery. To be honest, it was a lot of fun to learn and research these characters.
“One of the things that’s interesting about this music to me and the way it ties in to American history is that this was a time when folks were still working on the railroads. They would have juke joints or little hot houses in the railroad camps, because folks had to have entertainment.
“Fortunately, there was usually a piano in these places. On the weekends a gentleman would play. Then he would oftentimes ride the rails to the next city, and that’s how they would make their way to Chicago, St. Louis, or some of the other cities that became famous for blues-based piano playing.
“Little Brother Montgomery is one of the most intriguing figures. He went on to play with more sophisticated, big band-type ensembles, so he had an especially diversified career. ‘No Special Rider’ and ‘Vicksburg Blues’, a beautiful, melancholy blues instrumental, are two of my favorite Montgomery compositions.”
Piano Interludes for the Leavell Ladies
“I’ve always loved to write instrumental music. In other words, I attempt to paint pictures with the piano notes. I’m not much of a writer when it comes to lyrics. I leave that to others who do it a lot better than I do.
“I’ve written a number of songs for the women in my life. ‘Blue Rose’ is dedicated to my wife, Rose Lane. We get a lot of comments about being married for 40 years. People will say, ‘My goodness, how in the world have you stayed together that long in the rock and roll business? What’s your secret?’ I always tell them, ‘It’s really very simple, because marriage is like photographic film. It has to be developed in the dark [laughs].
“We’ve got two beautiful girls, Amy and Ashley. Amy is the oldest, although they’re both grown up. We’re blessed with two grandsons that Amy has. It’s kind of funny – I don’t know how to act around them.
“’A Song for Amy’ was written for my daughter when she was just a toddler. I was watching her play one day. I had been listening to Vince Guaraldi, who wrote the ‘Charlie Brown Theme’. For one reason or another, Guaraldi reminded me of Amy.
‘Ashley’ was composed for my Southscape album in 2005. So many years had passed by that when I finally recorded the song and told Ashley that I had a song named after her on my upcoming record, she wryly remarked, ‘About time, Dad!’”
George Harrison and “Here Comes the Sun”
“One of the great periods in my career was getting to work with George Harrison. He was such a wonderful guy. He always had a smile on his face and a wonderful chuckle. Of course, he was a Beatle, too [laughs].
“George was not only a great singer, songwriter, and performer, but a great humanitarian. He was the first guy to ever arrange a rock concert to raise funds for people that needed help with The Concert for Bangladesh.
“George obviously wrote all kinds of songs, but he wrote some songs that really had elements of hope in them that I felt were beautiful; I thought ‘Here Comes the Sun’ would fit especially tonight because that is what Graceway is all about….hope.”
Eric Clapton and “Alberta, Alberta”
“The way I got to George Harrison was actually through Eric Clapton. I had a couple of great years with Eric [1991-1992]. One of the fun records I did with him was the Unplugged album. That album, recorded for MTV in a little studio in England, was a truly unplugged, live performance, with all acoustic instruments. We did our thing, and it came out pretty well.
“We did one song called ‘Alberta, Alberta’, an old 12-bar traditional blues number. Oddly enough, at the end of the song, you hear Eric call out, ‘Chuck Leavell!’ I remember thinking, Man, how cool is that.
“Shortly after the record had been released, we were taking a little break before we went back on tour. In the meantime, I was setting up some interviews to do concerning forestry and conservation.
“I was on the phone with a lady, and she said, ‘I just bought Clapton’s Unplugged record. It’s really great, and I wanted to tell you that’. I replied, ‘Thank you. It was a wonderful experience for me. We had a fantastic band, and of course, it’s been a pleasure working with Eric’.
“She continued, ‘My son really likes the record, too. Do you know the spot where Clapton hollers out your name after that tune?’ I admitted, ‘Yeah. I can’t believe the producer, Russ Titelman kept Eric’s ad-lib intact, but they did.’ ‘Well, my son really likes that part.’
“I was becoming very confused at this point. I sheepishly inquired, ‘First of all, how old is your boy?’ ‘He’s six years old.’ I had to ask her, ‘Why does he get so excited when he hears Eric say ‘Chuck Leavell!’ ‘Because he thinks Clapton said ‘chocolate milk’” [laughs].
Chuck Leavell Setlist, Feb. 5, 2010, Benefit for GraceWay Recovery, Albany Municipal Auditorium, Albany, Georgia
- “In the Wee Wee Hours” [Written by Roy Byrd; on Leavell’s Live in Germany, 2008]
- “Keep on Gwine” [Instrumental by New Orleans pianist James Booker]
- “Route 66” [Bobby Troupe; The Rolling Stones, 1964, and Live in Germany]
- “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” [Jimmy Cox; Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, 1992]
- “Living in a Dream” [Sea Level’s On the Edge, 1978, and Live in Germany]
- “Tumbling Dice” [The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., 1972; and Live in Germany]
- “Honky Tonk Women” [The Rolling Stones’ Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2), 1969, and Live in Germany]
- “Dead Flowers” [The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, 1971]
- “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” [Hank Williams]
- “No Special Rider” [Little Brother Montgomery; Leavell’s Back to the Woods, 2012]
- “Vicksburg Blues” [Little Brother Montgomery: Back to the Woods]
- “Rip This Joint” [The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., and Live in Germany]
- “Blue Rose” [Instrumental; Leavell’s Forever Blue, 2001, and Live in Germany]
- “A Song For Amy” [Instrumental; Sea Level’s Cats on the Coast, 1978, and Forever Blue]
- “Ashley” [Instrumental; Leavell’s Southscape, 2005]
- “Here Comes the Sun” [The Beatles’ Abbey Road, 1969, and Live in Germany]
- “Alberta, Alberta” [aka “Corrine, Corrina;” Traditional; Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, and Live in Germany]
- “Down the Road Apiece” [Don Raye; The Rolling Stones, Now!, 1965, and Live in Germany]
- “Jessica” [The Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters, 1973, Southscape, and Live in Germany]
- Encore: “Georgia on My Mind” [Forever Blue and Live in Germany]
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! The unseen 15-image slideshow accompanying this article perfectly illustrates Chuck Leavell’s well-received visit to Albany, Ga. Candid shots were taken on-stage at the Albany Municipal Auditorium as well as the next day at the Graceway Recovery house. To mark the casual atmosphere, Leavell changed into hunting/outdoor clothes, met with folks, autographed the wall, played a make-shift piano, and found time to plant a tree with his lovely wife, Rose Lane.
If that isn’t your cup of tea, Leavell contributed some downright dirty piano licks to the Black Crowes’ debut 1990 album, Shake Your Moneymaker. “Twice As Hard,” “Jealous Again,” and “She Talks to Angels” all became staples of mainstream rock radio. A new rock ‘n’ roll rewind feature examines one of the Georgia rockers’ greatest television appearances. Commanding the hallowed stage of The Late Show with David Letterman, the longhairs delivered a confident dose of “Soul Singing.” An exclusive selection of photos featuring the band performing at their Georgia Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Leavell is icing on the cake.
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Further Reading: In December 1991 Chuck Leavell participated on George Harrison’s final tour, a brief co-headlining jaunt with Eric Clapton in Japan. The quiet Beatle composed an arsenal of beloved recordings in his 40-year career. “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” is a Beatlesque and quite commercial track on 1973’s Living in the Material World, Harrison’s second solo studio album. A recent article, “Rediscovering a Superb Love Song…”, examines why the composition truly deserved to be a hit single…
Exclusive Interview: Singer/songwriter Ray Stevens is a versatile pianist who has scored numerous hit singles on the country and pop charts in his 50-year recording career. His best-loved recordings are often humorous in nature and include the Grammy-winning “Everything Is Beautiful”, “Mr. Businessman”, “Gitarzan,” “Turn Your Radio On,” “The Streak,” “Misty,” “Shriner’s Convention,” and “Mississippi Squirrel Revival.” In a wide-ranging three-part interview [“Ray Stevens: Still Trying To Figure Out What He’s Gonna Do When He Grows Up”], Stevens is candid on topics such as seeing Louis Armstrong in concert, hearing himself on the radio for the first time, the moment when he realized he could make a living as a musician, his buddy, Jerry “Guitar Man” Reed, playing trumpet on an Elvis Presley recording session, his versatile musical abilities, how he approaches writing a song, and much more…
Exclusive Interview No. 2: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who’s who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Merle Haggard, and recently Brad Paisley. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic “Stood Up” b/w “Waitin’ in School” driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson [“Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson”], simply click on the highlighted link.
- Exclusive Interview No. 3: John Denver will forever be remembered as the consummate singer-songwriter. The radio friendly, environmentally conscious entertainer possesses an incredible body of work with such landmark recordings as “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Back Home Again,” “Rocky Mountain High,” “Annie’s Song,” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” all staples of early ’70s AM radio. Denver’s final pianist, Chris Nole, recently agreed to revisit his memorable relationship with the singer on the commemoration of his 70th birthday. Stick around as Nole discusses how he came to join Denver’s band, what it was like to have a single rehearsal and then debut in front of thousands of fans, Denver’s homespun sense of humor, whether the singer had any pre-show superstitions, their final conversation, and much more.
Exclusive Interview No. 4: One of my proudest moments as a working journalist was getting to spend an hour conversing with American treasure Merle Haggard about his storied career. In “Still Holding His Mud: A Day in the Life of ‘Struggling’ Guitarist Merle Haggard,” the ink slinger waxes nostalgic about learning to play both the fiddle and guitar as a poor but blessed nine-year-old Bakersfield kid in the aftermath of World War II, if he still has those crucial instruments gathering dust in a closet somewhere, raising a Fender Telecaster maestro at the dawn of the 21st century, actually receiving inspiration for a song while sauntering towards a London concert stage, his patented songwriting formula, losing anonymity, and whether stage fright can be conquered.
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