A brisk interview with Eric Clapton’s ‘Unplugged’ keyboardist Chuck Leavell

Jerry Lee Lewis, “Back to the Woods,” blues piano masters, recording sessions, the Mother Nature Network, and essential Chuck Leavell albums encapsulate a killer and no filler interview with the veteran Rolling Stones and Allman Brothers Band pianist. Photography by David Braun

Chuck Leavell, an almost original member of the Allman Brothers Band and a veteran keyboardist for the Rolling Stones since 1981, has worked with a dizzying array of artists such as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Black Crowes, and John Mayer. When he is not touring or conceiving setlists with the endearing, often bickering Glimmer Twins, Leavell steps out on his own to support Back to the Woods, a heart-felt tribute to the long neglected piano blues and boogie masters of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s with Keith Richards and Mayer supplying healthy doses of six string fury.

Guilty as charged for unleashing the well-written and fascinating memoir Between Rock and a Home Place, Leavell sat down for a brief email conversation shortly before fulfilling a unique one man band benefit show for GraceWay Recovery in February 2010. GraceWay is a non-profit, faith-based, long-term substance abuse and addiction treatment center for women in Albany, Georgia, coincidentally the hometown of two further piano prodigies — Ray Charles and Ray Stevens. While the published piece is arguably all killer and no filler, it’s cachet within my writing arsenal cannot be overestimated— it was my debut interview.

The Chuck Leavell Interview

What is the story behind the photo of you and the iconic last man standing, Jerry Lee Lewis?

I’ve known Jerry Lee for many years. I played a show with him once in Rome, Italy. That particular photo was taken on the Stones’ Forty Licks Tour when we were in Los Angeles, and Jerry Lee came to a Thanksgiving dinner we had. And of course, I am a fan and have been inspired by him tremendously.

Who did you research before tackling Back to the Woods [2012]?

Mostly the blues masters of the piano, especially Little Brother Montgomery, Leroy Carr, and Cow Cow Davenport — all for the preparation for Back to the Woods.

If you were discussing your essential albums with a non-fan, which ones would you pick?

Well, the first record I did with the Allman Brothers Band — Brother and Sisters — would be one, as well as Eric Clapton’s Unplugged live album, recorded 20 years later. And my own records, including Forever Blue: Solo Piano [2001], Southscape [2005], Live In Germany: Green Leaves and Blue Notes Tour [2007], and obviously Back to the Woods would all show folks what I do.

Do you still contribute to recording sessions?

Absolutely — I’ve played on quite a few sessions. In the 21st century it’s mostly been with contemporary country artists such as Montgomery Gentry [My Town, 2002 and Back When I Knew It All, 2008], Miranda Lambert [Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, 2007], Martina McBride [Eleven, 2011], and David Nail [I’m About To Come Alive, 2009 and The Sound of a Million Dreams, 2011].

Do you play any additional instruments besides piano?

I play a bit of guitar and some mandolin. I haven’t played them in public…but one day!

What can fans expect at your solo concerts?

I don’t give away my performances, but I will tell you that it will cover a good bit of my career.

What is the purpose of the Mother Nature Network?

I co-founded my conservation venture with my partner Joel Babbit in 2009. Joel is a brilliant creative person with a long and successful career in advertising and public relations. We launched MNN.com and are now one of the most visited environmental websites in the world.

Our aim is to give the best possible news, information, and educational tools to folks that want to do better on environmental issues. We’ve worked hard to make it comprehensive, accurate, easy to navigate, and understand.

It’s been a great experience, and we continue to grow significantly every month. We’ve recently merged with two different Discovery properties, and MNN is now the No. 1 most visited environmental website in the world. I’m very happy about that.

[Author’s Note: That’s Chuck Leavell, Not Chocolate Milk: In Concert with the Stellar Rolling Stones Pianist” details the GraceWay Recovery benefit near the musician’s South Georgia home. A masterful raconteur, Leavell’s anecdotes range from Hank Williams, country music, the secret to a successful marriage, the songs he composed for the women in his life, touring with George Harrison during a 1991 sojourn in Japan, to the confused, funny reaction he received from a six-year-old fan after listening to Eric Clapton’s epochal Unplugged album for MTV].

Chuck Leavell puts conservation into action by practicing a controlled burn at his Charlane Plantation in Dry Branch, Georgia, circa March 7, 2009. Image Credit: The Chuck Leavell Collection
On February 6, 2010, the day after playing a one man band benefit for GraceWay Recovery at the Albany Municipal Auditorium in Albany, Georgia, conservationists Chuck Leavell and wife Rose Lane Leavell are seen with shovels digging a hole for a soon to be transplanted tree outside the female alcohol and drug rehab facility in South Georgia. Photography by Harrison Greene
On July 28, 1973, Chuck Leavell rehearses backstage with the impossibly famous Jerry Garcia just before the Allman Brothers Band took the stage for the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, which once received a Guinness Book of World Records honor for “Largest Audience at a Pop Festival” with an estimated 600,000 folks in attendance. Leavell had no idea the shot existed until almost 45 years later. The Band, featuring Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, were also on the bill. The Grateful Dead leader is clutching a 1957 Fender Stratocaster “Alligator” guitar given to him by Graham Nash. Garcia contributed pedal steel to “I Used to Be a King” and “Man in the Mirror,” part of the British singer-songwriter’s debut solo album “Songs for Beginners,” as well as “Teach Your Children” from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s septuple platinum “Déjà Vu” 1970 long player. Photography by Joe Sia / Bill Graham Archives / Courtesy of Dan Beeson
“Alberta, Alberta:” Eric Clapton and pianist Chuck Leavell are seen backstage at the Royal Albert Hall sometime between February 13 and March 9, 1991, part of the guitar god‘s fifth residency at the venerable London concert venue. The following year Leavell participated in “Unplugged,” Clapton’s best-selling album of all time commissioned for the MTV music network. Image Credit: The Chuck Leavell Collection
Listen to Rolling Stones sideman Chuck Leavell pay tribute to the pioneers of blues piano on “No Special Rider,” “Boots and Shoes” [featuring Keith Richards and John Mayer], and the Candi Staton-assisted “Mean Mistreater,” dropped February 26, 2012, on “Back to the Woods.” Video Credit: Evergreen Arts / Red Records

© Jeremy Roberts, 2010, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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