Chuck Leavell: World-Class Keyboard Player, Part Two
In Part One (Issue 133) Copper interviewed keyboard player extraordinaire Chuck Leavell about the making of The Tree Man, the new documentary about his life, and his work with the Rolling Stones, Sea Level, The Allman Brothers Band and more. The interview continues here. Ray Chelstowski: What’s been the hardest body of work to get...
In Part One (Issue 133) Copper interviewed keyboard player extraordinaire Chuck Leavell about the making of The Tree Man, the new documentary about his life, and his work with the Rolling Stones, Sea Level, The Allman Brothers Band and more. The interview continues here.
Ray Chelstowski: What’s been the hardest body of work to get your arms around?
Chuck Leavell: David Gilmour. We all know Pink Floyd but I hadn’t really studied their music that deeply before. Also David had a lot of solo songs off his records that he wanted to have in the show. So he sent me a live concert that he had done fairly recently in South America. I studied that thing in my little rehearsal place every day, making chord charts and practicing until I was on a plane headed over there. It was extremely helpful to me because it was a lot of information to absorb.
RC: I never knew that Gilmour had you sing the Roger Waters’ vocal part in “Comfortably Numb.” I consider that to be one of the most difficult vocal parts in rock n roll.
CL: Well, David gave me a great piece of advice. He told me to curl my lip a little bit when I sing it and that really helped me to understand the character. You have to kind of put yourself in that character’s shoes and imagine how he would sound in delivering that message he delivers. So it was really helpful for him to give me that small piece of advice.
RC: I was also surprised to see Bonnie Raitt appear in the film. When did you both work together?
CL: Well with Bonnie it was really more of a casual jam “sit in” relationship. I’ve never officially been in a band with her. But in the days when I was working with the Fabulous Thunderbirds we had a lot of concerts together with Bonnie. Then of course she has been a special guest [in] Stones shows as well. She’s just such a lovely person. By the way, we even did shows together with Sea Level. So there have been a lot of exchanges with her through the years. I’m so glad and grateful that she agreed to be interviewed for the film.
RC: You famously joined George Harrison’s last tour. Did you ever get the chance to record at (Harrison’s studio,} Friar Park?
CL: Yes! We did. Oh my heavens. That place was is so incredible. Like all of us, that photograph on the front of All Things Must Pass always intrigued me. Then, having the opportunity to be there was something. I remember when we were rehearsing around Thanksgiving and Olivia (Harrison) said, “why don’t we have all of the guys over for a Thanksgiving dinner at Friar Park?” We had the dinner and then went back a few more times after that. The gardens, topiary garden, the Japanese garden, the rock garden, the grotto, the interior of the house….it was all absolutely fantastic. I didn’t record there but obviously saw the studio, walked about it and got to touch everything. But we never did actually record there.
RC: The Gregg Allman’s solo album Laid Back was really your foray into joining the Allman Brothers and in many ways launched this amazing career. Did you realize at the time how big this moment was?
CL: Not really. It was more a matter of how the cards were falling. I would listen to Duane and Gregg when they were the Allman Joys back in Tuscaloosa. They would play at a place called the Fort Brandon Armory. I was a big fan back then and understood how powerful their presence was. So after coming to Macon and making my way up I would get these sessions mainly through Johnny Sandlin. He was the one who called me in on the Laid Back record. He felt like I could contribute something. I actually had gone back to Tuscaloosa to see my mom for a little bit and the phone rang and it was Johnny. He said, “here’s what’s happening, do you want to do it?” I said, “hell yes I wanna do it!”
That was a really strong little group. We had Tommy Talton, Scott Boyer, and Charlie Hayward played some bass on the record. Then of course we were embellished by Ed Freeman’s string parts here and there. I was barely twenty when that went down so those songs like “Queen of Hearts” and “Multicolored Lady” were great vehicles to express myself. After hours there were these jam sessions that would occur and often times the rest of the Allman Brothers would come too. We might play a blues song or an Allman song or just pick a key and go. These things started to feel very interesting. To contrast what used to be a twin-guitar band with now a twin-keyboard [band] and a great guitar player started to take the music in a different direction. I would like to think that it came as a relief to the band because you can imagine how mentally and physically exhausted they were at that time. When Duane died they had something like ninety shows that they did as a five -piece band in order to fulfill obligations. There was a lot of pressure on Dickey (Betts) to do those slide parts, because he had never really played slide up to that point. So I think what happened by accident was that by me being there and taking things in a slightly different direction it kind of became a release valve for those guys.
RC: You host a video series called In The Green Room, where you interview celebrities about their work with the environment. Whose work has really amazed you?
CL: Chevy Chase. Of all people! With his wife Judy they do some environmental things for schools in their area. I thought it was really cool that they would take the time to engage in that kind of thing. So he was a bit of a surprise. My friend Greg Gumbel, the sports announcer, talked with me about what the NFL was doing to help “green” their world. Then there’s Usher. I interviewed him about some things he was doing in the Black community to help people better understand how to be more environmentally sensitive. Those are three that stood out to me as very interesting and a bit surprising.
RC: You also have become involved in education with IROCKU. What’s your approach to teaching music?
CL: Well you know here in “COVID world” I’ve engaged in several opportunities to sort of express myself in those terms. I did one seminar for IROCKU from my office here with a keyboard that I have. Having the opportunity for people to ask questions not strictly about musical things but also about the business of music or how to become known provides a holistic approach. It’s not just about what you do with your hands on the keyboard, but what you do across a career. It’s also about working with other musicians and how important it is to listen to their parts so that you can enhance them as best you can.
When you are doing a session it’s important to pay attention to the lyrics of the song and the musicality of the song and ask yourself the question, “what is this song wanting me to do?” Does it want me to step out and solo or is it asking me to paint some colors here and there? What instrumentation is it requesting me to play? Is it a keyboard or an organ or a piano? So when I talk to people on that level about making music and having a career in music those are the kind of things that I like to discuss.
RC: On Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, during “Old Love” when you are lighting things up on the solo, Eric Clapton and Andy Fairweather Low look at each other and smile, almost as if it even caught them off guard. It was as if how you approached it in rehearsal was more tame.
CL: Well what happened was we went through the rehearsal for Unplugged and that song was on the list. Then Eric for some reason discarded it. Maybe it was one slow song too many or it didn’t click for him. I was kind of disappointed because I love the song. So we do the set and we go through everything we had rehearsed except “Old Love.” We had jammed on an encore and I don’t know why Eric turned to me but he asked, “hey man, we’re out of songs what can we play?” Immediately I said “Old Love.” So that’s the way it came about. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And you’re right. I was kinda like a coiled spring. I couldn’t wait to have that one.
RC: At your planation have there been any infamous or not so infamous jams that have occurred with overnight guests?
CL: Hahahaha. Well you know sadly I haven’t had as many of my musical mates out here as I would have liked. But I can tell you this. In addition to forestry, one of the things that I do on the side a little bit is traditional southern quail hunting on a commercial basis. As you can imagine a lot of the clients who come here are fans and many are amateur musicians; some are actually quite good. And so there are jam sessions that go down over at what we call “The Lodge” where I’ve got a really nice Yamaha piano. In fact I’ve got a group over there right now and one of the guys called me up and said, “hey we learned ‘Grand Larceny’ by Sea Level. You think we can do that tonight?” So I get a lot of that kind of thing and the way I put it to people is that obviously we get quail hunters in the woods and we have a traditional Southern outdoor experience. It’s more about watching the dogs work than is about anything. But at the end of the day when the cocktail time comes I go sit with the guys and do some songs on the piano. Sometimes it’s better to bring the audience to me than for me to go to the audience, especially in [these] COVID [times].
RC: Last year’s Madison Square Garden Allman Brothers 50th Anniversary show on March 10th was one of the last live shows I got to see. You all outdid yourselves. Is there any chance of taking this on the road once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted?
CL: There was a good bit of discussion between some of us who participated, to say, “hey, could we take this one the road and do a little tour?” I felt like it went so well. I mean Warren (Haynes) knocked it out of the park. He always does anyway. The others that contributed for the first time like Duane Trucks and Reese Wynans helped make for a powerful performance. I think it really did the Allman Brothers justice and its such great music. It’s a logistical challenge with everyone’s schedules but there was such a special feeling that night. I think we could replicate that if we could just get everybody together. It just all fell together and felt very natural. It didn’t feel forced by any means. There were a lot of smiles going around the room both at rehearsals and at the show itself. Fingers crossed. Maybe we can figure it out!
RC: As you consider your legacy, what do you most want to be known for?
CL: As the film depicts, it’s really three things. The music, the environment, and of course family!
Photography by © Allen Farst.