CHUCK LEAVELL  -  FROM THE STONES TO THE TREES

Some of rock and roll’s most beloved piano parts have flowed from the fingers of Chuck Leavell.

After cutting his teeth as a teen in the legendary Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio scene, Leavell helped revive the Allman Brothers band after the death of guitarist Duane Allman, and he contributed to some of the band’s most enduring tracks. He displayed his chops and stylistic range as leader of the rock-fusion band Sea Level. He’s worked with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Aretha Franklin, John Mayer, and other artists, and has recorded several fine solo albums (including the recent Back to the Woods, a tribute to the pioneers of blues piano).

And for 30, years he’s been the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones.
We caught up with Leavell at his tree farm in rural Georgia during a break on the Stones’ current world tour. As passionate about forestry and conservation as he is about music, Chuck is a cofounder of the Mother Nature Network (mnn.com), the world’s most visited environmental website.

Is playing with the Stones still a thrill after 30 years?

You bet it is, man! The band’s general vibe is, “Wow, we still get to do this? How cool is that?”

As the band’s music director, you do more than just play keyboards.

“IF I’M DOING A SOLO PIANO PIECE, I MAY WANT A MELLOWER, DARKER SOUND. BUT WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING AN UPTEMPO SONG WITH THE ROLLING STONES, YOU WANT SOMETHING THAT CUTS THROUGH. HAVING THOSE CHOICES IS VERY VALUABLE“

My position involves making song suggestions, arrangement suggestions, and helping remind my bosses about some of the arrangements of songs we don’t play so often. During performances, when Mick is entertaining the crowd, he may want some reassurance of where we are in the tune, or if there’s a solo coming up. I perform those duties. I also set the tempos for maybe 50 percent of the songs.

chuckHow do you approach all those classic keyboard parts?

The Stones have had amazing keyboard players: Nicky Hopkins, Ian Stewart, Ian McLagen, Billy Preston, Jack Nitzsche, Al Kooper. I have nothing but immense respect for all of those guys, and it’s an honor to play the parts they created. The balance is to make sure that their motifs are recognizable, but to phrase them the way I’m comfortable doing it.

Is there one particular keyboard sound that’s closest to your heart?

Yeah, my heart is sitting behind that acoustic piano, man. And it’s a Yamaha, by the way. I’ve got a really nice Yamaha C7 piano at home. I absolutely love it, and that’s where my heart is. I would say 80 percent of what I do is sit behind that piano, or the new digital version of it, the CP4. The CP4 has a nice wooden action and a great feel, and I like the fact that if I want to do a little jam session, I can literally throw the thing under my arm. It has several sets of piano sounds. If I’m doing a solo piano piece, I may want a mellower, darker sound. But when you’re playing an uptempo song with the Rolling Stones, you want something that cuts through. So having those choices is very valuable.

You’ve had some other amazing gigs besides the Stones. For example, you played on Eric Clapton’s biggest album, Unplugged.

When I first started playing with Eric, I was the second keyboardist, mostly playing organ pads behind Greg Phillinganes on piano—a genius, and a friend, and a great, great player. When Greg resigned, Eric asked whether I thought we needed another keyboardist, but I said I’d like to try it on my own. I was like a coiled-up spring, so when we did Unplugged, that was my chance to jump out there. I don’t think any of us foresaw that it would become Eric’s largest-selling record. But it’s great to be on it!

What was it like playing with George Harrison?

Eric and George, as we all know, had a very interesting relationship, but they were very close friends. At that time, Eric had suffered the tragic loss of his son, Connor. And after a certain period of grief, he felt that he needed to be working and not just sitting around. He challenged George to go on tour: “You never get in the trenches like the rest of us. Why don’t you get out there?” George’s answer was “But I don’t have a band.” And Eric said, “Well, you can have my band, and you can have me.” The gauntlet was thrown down, and George had no choice but to step up. And what a joy, what an honor, what a wonderful experience to work with George! He was always my favorite Beatle. I always loved his weirdness, his mystique, that mysterious halo around him. He was always pleasant and great to be with, and he had this wonderful chuckle that I’ll never forget. I know we all miss him greatly.

Is there a connection between your music and your conservation work?

Absolutely. I reminded myself when I started studying forestry where that wonderful instrument, the piano, which has given me so much joy and a great career comes from….the resource of wood. Most musical instruments we know and love contain some degree of wood in them. Also, I find that being in the woods frees up your mind and sometimes melodies can come to me when I'm in the forest. You can get inspired by the call of a bird, the barking of a squirrel, or the rustling of leaves. That’s all music to me!