It’s rare that an artist can claim membership in two of rock and roll’s all-time greatest bands. But Chuck Leavell boasts that distinction. First with the Allman Brothers Band, and then, for the past 26 years, with the Rolling Stones, the 55-year-old keyboardist has lent his skills to some of the most memorable recordings of our times.
In recent years, Leavell has also recorded several superb solo albums. His latest, Live in Germany: Green Leaves & Blues Tour 2007, features piano-based versions of Rolling Stones and Allman Brothers classics, plus a smattering of original songs. Recently Leavell shared his thoughts about his remarkable career thus far.
You’ve often said that seeing Ray Charles perform, when you were very young, had a tremendous impact on you. How so?
I was 13 or 14 years old when I saw him live, for the first time. I had started playing music by then. I had a little band called the Misfits, and I played a little keyboard, but I was really focused on the guitar. We’ve all had those moments where something excites us, or moves us, and that's what happened to me that night. It was an incredible band ? Ray himself, and the Raylettes, and Fathead Newman on sax, and Billy Preston on organ. I made up my mind that night that I wanted to be in a band that was that powerful. I wanted to make that my career.
You joined the Allman Brothers not long after Duane Allman died. To what extent did you feel you were plugging a hole that had been left by Duane?
I didn't feel any real pressure, because I wasn’t a guitar player. Anyone who tried to fill those shoes would have felt lots of pressure, and would have been scrutinized much more than I was. When the idea of a piano-player in the Allmans came up, people sort of scratched their heads, but once they heard it, they saw that it worked. I felt no pressure to be anything other than what I am, and to do what I do.
Your solo on “Jessica” is one of the all-time great rock piano solos. How much time did you spend working on that?
It was pretty much improvised. Dickey [Betts] brought the song to the band, we all liked it, and we started working on it. We all pitched in on the arrangement. They sort of looked at me like, “Okay kid, here's your chance. Let's get a spot for you to solo." I was just focused on trying to make the song work. I didn't sit there and design the solo. Once the solo became what it was, though, people were always disappointed if I didn’t play it the same way it’s played on the record. Even today, when I do that solo, I make sure I put some of those licks in there.
You've been with the Stones since 1982. How much latitude do Jagger and Richards give you regarding your parts for a song, and for a live performance?
It’s a free rein, pretty much. That’s not to say that what I think ? or the contributions I make ? don’t often end up on the cutting-room floor. That’s up to Mick and Keith and the producer. It sometimes hurts my feelings when I feel I contributed something significant ? something that sounded good ? and it becomes indiscernible in the mix, or they choose not to use it. But that's their call. As regards the live stuff, that’s where they seem to favor me. The recent record ? Shine A Light, from the Scorsese film ? has a pretty good keyboard mix. Another Stones album with a good keyboard mix is Stripped. When I hear those recordings, I think, “Great!” But for some reason, with a lot of the studio stuff, my playing gets buried in the mix.
How has your role with the band evolved through the years?
Beginning with the Steel Wheels rehearsals, I’ve kept detailed documentation. Since that time the band has looked to me for use of this. How did we do it last time? What was the arrangement we did? Where were the background vocals? Do we want to change anything? Those kinds of issues. From there, my role went toward the set list. I started making suggestions to Mick about certain songs I thought would be fun to play, and that fans might like to hear. They knew I was a fan long before I ever joined the band, so I have that dual perspective ? as a musician and as a fan.
On your new solo album you adapted several Stones and Allman Brothers songs from guitar-centered to piano-based arrangements. Did that come easily?
The way it worked was, I sent some MP3s to the musicians, so they could hear them prior to our first rehearsal. Some of those recordings were early demos I did backstage during the last Stones tour, whenever I had a minute or two. The musicians did their homework, and they came in prepared for the two short rehearsals we did. By the time we did the show in Frankfurt, everybody was ready to go. But there was also an element of things being on the edge, because we had only had those two rehearsals. Everybody was on their tiptoes.
What are your proudest moments on record?
Certainly “Jessica” is up there. That song ? and that performance ? has stood the test of time. The whole Brothers and Sisters album was a landmark for me. Moving forward, Stripped is another proud moment. The Stones ballad “Out of Tears” [from Voodoo Lounge] springs to mind. And some of Keith’s songs ? especially one called "Losing My Touch" ? have piano parts I’m very proud of. As far as other artists I’ve worked with, I'm proud of the work on Eric Clapton’s Unplugged ? the whole album, but especially “Old Love” and the alternative version of “Layla.” And there’s the hit record with Train, “Drops of Jupiter.” There’s also a new Montgomery Gentry record called “Hell Yeah” that has some nice keyboard moments.