Q&A with keyboardist Chuck Leavell

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Chuck Leavell, environmentalist and pianist for numerous musicians including The Rolling Stones, performed during Forever Green, Upstate Forever's annual awards lunch, at the Embassy Suites in Greenville on Thursday, February 3, 2011. Leavell was the keynote speaker and performer after seven awards were given to Naturaland Trust, Dave Hargett, Frank Powell, Pickens County, Rick Danner, Rick Huffman and Tommy Wyche.

ASPEN – Chuck Leavell – you might not know the name, but the music is probably embedded in your brain. Apart from playing one of the most well-known and joyous piano solos ever – two and a half minutes into the Allman Brothers Band’s 1973 instrumental hit “Jessica” – Leavell has been a key sideman for Eric Clapton, George Harrison and the Black Crowes. And, oh yes, a little blues-rock outfit known as the Rolling Stones, for whom he has occupied the piano bench for nearly three decades.Leavell has also been productive under his own name as well. The ’70s jazz-rock band Sea Level was his baby (the name Sea Level is a play on “C. Leavell”), and in recent year, the Alabama native has published a series of books focused on issues of the forests and sustainability.Leaving Mick and Keith, Charlie and Ron aside, the 58-year-old Leavell comes to Aspen for a solo gig on Saturday, March 12, at 8 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. The Aspen Times had a few questions for him.Aspen Times: You’ve been associated with the Rolling Stones, as their concert and studio keyboardist, for over 25 years. So was there anything in Keith Richards’ memoir “Life” that surprised you? Chuck Leavell: Not so much surprised. I did learn some things I didn’t know. His early days, for instance – the uncle that encouraged him on the guitar. I enjoyed reading about those early tours, and the relationships between the bands and artists. Really great, colorful insight. And while we are all aware of some of his “habits,” he got quite graphic about it in his book, holding nothing back. There is no doubt, my pal Keith has used up about 15 of his nine lives!But I love that guy so much. He has always been gracious and honorable with me, and so much fun to play with, to be with. He has a tremendous wit and sense of humor. He just made a cameo appearance on my next CD project, a tribute to pioneering blues piano players from the ’30s/’40s/’50s era. He played on two tracks for me – brilliantly, I might add. AT: Like Richards, you double as a writer. But your books, like the new “Growing a Better America,” address issues of sustainability and forestry. What is your background in those fields? CL: My wife, Rose Lane, inherited some family land in 1981. Her family has been connected to the land for generations as farmers. I took this seriously and started a journey to learn about land use and the environment. After studying several options, I settled on forestry. I became fascinated with the subject, and we began to plant and manage our family forest. Since then, my passion for environmental concerns has blossomed, and in addition to the books, I partnered with my friend, Joel Babbit from Atlanta, to start the Mother Nature Network ( We realized there was a need for a clean, comprehensive website dedicated to all things environmental. We’re now the third-most visited environmental site in the world, with over two million hits a month from 230 countries and territories. So many eco-sites are designed for experts and scientists. Our goal was to build the best site for environmental news, information and education, in a way that truly engages the visitor. AT: When you were a member of the Allman Brothers Band, you played one of the great piano solos in rock, on “Jessica.” Have you got a favorite Rolling Stones piano/keyboard part, one that you didn’t originally play? CL: Through history there have been some great piano players with the Stones: Ian Stewart, Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston. I love all those guys’ contributions to the Stones recordings and have studied them for years. As a matter of fact, there is a new book out on Nicky that I helped contribute to. I got to know him well before he passed away. I love performing his parts on “Angie,” “Waiting on a Friend,” “She’s A Rainbow.” Billy’s work on songs like “Shine A Light,” “I Got The Blues” and the like are remarkable. Ian Stewart was much like a big brother to me when I joined the band. He taught me a lot about boogie-woogie playing. So I’ve learned (and stolen licks!) from all of them. AT: You’re working on an album that pays tribute to blues pianists from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Mostly you hear about blues guitarists from that era. Were there some standout personalities among blues pianists? CL: Oh, yeah. It’s my wheelhouse. Many of these players are forgotten names, such as Little Brother Montgomery, Leroy Carr, Jesse James, Charlie Spand. Some are better known, including the great Otis Spann. I also did a very early Ray Charles song, from the , titled “Losing Hand.” It has been a joy to travel back in time and study these players, to pay homage to them as best I can. I mentioned earlier that Keith plays on a couple of tracks. I was also able to get John Mayer on a couple. I’ve been working with him on his next project. AT: You’ve worked with prominent Southern rock bands (Allmans, Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule) and British rockers (Stones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison). Are there any definitive distinctions between the two camps? CL: It is interesting to note that the Brits love Southern music, whether we’re talking blues, country, soul, whatever. I think in large part that’s why I’ve secured some of these gigs. AT: You’ve spent a lot of time onstage as part of big rock ‘n’ roll bands. What’s the experience like playing solo piano gigs? CL: It’s a whole different ball game. No one to take the pressure off. No one to lean on. It’s all up to you, no excuses. But I welcome the challenge. It keeps me on my toes, motivates me to practice to prepare for these things. The hardest part is to relax and enjoy the process, not worry about it, but to get into the songs and try and take the audience with you. AT: Gotta ask: Clapton or Keith? Or Duane? Or Warren?CL: … or Harrison? Betts? Beck? Page? Mayer? Geez, my head is spinning!


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