That’s Chuck Leavell, not chocolate milk: In concert with the stellar Rolling Stones pianist

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Get the inside scoop on legendary rock ’n’ roll sideman Chuck Leavell’s rare one man band benefit for GraceWay Recovery in Albany, Georgia. The pianist has played behind Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band, the Black Crowes, and John Mayer among many others. Leavell reveals his admiration for country music and Hank Williams, why he cut a tribute to the blues masters of the piano, the secret to a successful marriage, touring with the former Beatle during a 1991 sojourn in Japan, and the time he sat in on Clapton’s “Unplugged” album before a live MTV audience. In the accompanying still, sans his black coat, Leavell basks in the crowd’s adulation at the Albany Municipal Auditorium. Photography by Harrison Greene

Keyboard maestro Chuck Leavell is guilty as charged for his incredibly steady decades-long association with the Rolling Stones. He originally gained notoriety for being a member of the Allman Brothers Band, adding some fine piano licks to the early ’70s Southern Rock anthems “Jessica”, “Ramblin’ Man” and “Win, Lose or Draw” during his brief tenure in the band.

When not sitting in on studio sessions for diverse artists such as John Mayer or Eric Clapton, globe-trotting with the Glimmer Twins, or relaxing at his majestic Charlane Plantation, Leavell lectures on environmental conservation, best exemplified by his Mother Nature Network. And occasionally he will perform solo concerts backed by the Randall Bramblett Band.

However, when the Georgia-born musician traveled to the Southeast corner of his home state for a benefit spotlighting GraceWay Recovery, a non-profit, faith-based, long-term substance abuse and addiction treatment center for women, fans were treated to an unusual, memorable experience — Leavell opted to go completely solo without a backing band.

During his concert at the Albany Municipal Auditorium in Albany, Leavell brought his career full circle before a near-sellout crowd for 90 minutes. His well-chosen setlist — the pianist curates each Stones setlist — was sprinkled with choice cuts by the Stones, Allmans, Hank Williams, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton.

Playing a famous Steinway piano used by none other than Ray Charles, Leavell also indulged in his admiration of the blues and added a few original instrumentals for good measure, including two originally recorded by Sea Level, the blues/jazz/rock fusion band formed by Leavell after the Allmans initially disbanded.

Leavell is the consummate showman, providing easy-going banter that didn’t sound rehearsed to death like Paul McCartney tends to do. He is comfortable in his own skin and an all-around crowd pleaser. As Leavell tends to stay in the background during Stones’ concerts, it was enlightening that he can carry a tune and a show all by himself.

The pianist was very appreciative, thanking the community and the GraceWay Recovery foundation numerous times. He even gave a shout-out to the bakery that helps to sustain the recovery program, noting that “Rosie [my wife] and I stopped by the Bread House today and loaded up on cookies and sweet bread.”

While folks are likely aware of Leavell’s impressive piano chops, one facet of the performer’s kaleidoscope that rarely receives much attention is his keen penchant for storytelling.

What follows are vivid Leavell anecdotes from that special evening, including his admiration for country music and Hank Williams, why he cut a tribute to the blues masters of the piano, the secret to a successful marriage, the songs he wrote for the women in his life, and a reflection about touring with George Harrison during a 1991 sojourn in Japan.

The best is saved for last, as Leavell gleefully recalls the time he recorded the Eric Clapton Unplugged album before a live MTV audience in England. A diamond record with over 10 million units sold in the USA, it is by far the best-selling album sporting an appearance by Leavell.

During Clapton’s cover of the traditional blues standard “Alberta, Alberta”, the guitarist went so far as to name check Leavell before a solo. Shortly after it was released, Leavell was on the phone with a lady whose six-year-old son happened to get very excited every time he heard the song. The pianist was in for the surprise of his life when he found out why.

Chuck Leavell in Concert: The Storyteller

Hank Williams country by way of the Rolling Stones

“One of the great things about working with the Stones is that they have fun with different kinds of music, whether rock and roll, honky tonk, funk, or reggae. Every now and then they do a bit of country. One that we don’t do so often with them is called ‘Dead Flowers’…

“How can you talk about country music and not mention the greatest country music writer and probably best performer of all time, Hank Williams? That man certainly knew what he was doing. ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ is a masterpiece.

“When Norah Jones had that superb arrangement of ‘Cold Cold Heart’ [Come Away with Me, 2002], she succeeded in bringing Hank Williams to the attention of the general public. A lot of people would have never known anything about him if it wasn’t for Norah.”

Back to the Woods

“My latest album, Back to the Woods, is a tribute to the pioneers of blues piano, generally unsung heroes from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s eras, respectively. They’re not really household names…people like Leroy Carr, Cow Cow Davenport, and Little Brother Montgomery. To be honest, it was a lot of fun to learn and research these characters.

“One of the things that’s interesting about this music to me and the way it ties in to American history is that this was a time when folks were still working on the railroads. They would have juke joints or little hot houses in the railroad camps, because folks had to have entertainment.

“Fortunately, there was usually a piano in these places. On the weekends a gentleman would play. Then he would oftentimes ride the rails to the next city, and that’s how they would make their way to Chicago, St. Louis, or some of the other cities that became famous for blues-based piano playing.

“Little Brother Montgomery is one of the most intriguing figures. He went on to play with more sophisticated, big band-type ensembles, so he had an especially diversified career. ‘No Special Rider’ and ‘Vicksburg Blues’, a beautiful, melancholy blues instrumental, are two of my favorite Montgomery compositions.”

Piano interludes for the Leavell ladies

“I’ve always loved to write instrumental music. In other words, I attempt to paint pictures with the piano notes. I’m not much of a writer when it comes to lyrics. I leave that to others who do it a lot better than I do.

“I’ve written a number of songs for the women in my life. ‘Blue Rose’ is dedicated to my wife, Rose Lane. We get a lot of comments about being married for 40 years. People will say, ‘My goodness, how in the world have you stayed together that long in the rock and roll business? What’s your secret?’ I always tell them, ‘It’s really very simple, because marriage is like photographic film. It has to be developed in the dark [laughs].

“We’ve got two beautiful girls, Amy and Ashley. Amy is the oldest, although they’re both grown up. We’re blessed with two grandsons that Amy has. It’s kind of funny — I don’t know how to act around them.

“’A Song for Amy’ was written for my daughter when she was just a toddler. I was watching her play one day. I had been listening to Vince Guaraldi, who wrote the ‘Charlie Brown Theme’. For one reason or another, Guaraldi reminded me of Amy.

‘Ashley’ was composed for my Southscape album in 2005. So many years had passed by that when I finally recorded the song and told Ashley that I had a song named after her on my upcoming record, she wryly remarked, ‘About time, Dad!’”

George Harrison and “Here Comes the Sun”

“One of the great periods in my career was getting to work with George Harrison. He was such a wonderful guy. He always had a smile on his face and a wonderful chuckle. Of course, he was a Beatle, too [laughs].

“George was not only a great singer, songwriter, and performer, but a great humanitarian. He was the first guy to ever arrange a rock concert to raise funds for people that needed help with The Concert for Bangladesh.

“George obviously wrote all kinds of songs, but he wrote some songs that really had elements of hope in them that I felt were beautiful; I thought ‘Here Comes the Sun’ would fit especially tonight because that is what Graceway is all about….hope.”

Eric Clapton and “Alberta, Alberta”

“The way I got to George Harrison was actually through Eric Clapton. I had a couple of great years with Eric [1991–1992]. One of the fun records I did with him was the Unplugged album. That album, recorded for MTV in a little studio in England, was a truly unplugged, live performance, with all acoustic instruments. We did our thing, and it came out pretty well.

“We did one song called ‘Alberta, Alberta’, an old 12-bar traditional blues number. Oddly enough, at the end of the song, you hear Eric call out, ‘Chuck Leavell!’ I remember thinking, ‘Man, how cool is that.’

“Shortly after the record had been released, we were taking a little break before we went back on tour. In the meantime, I was setting up some interviews to do concerning forestry and conservation.

“I was on the phone with a lady, and she said, ‘I just bought Clapton’s Unplugged record. It’s really great, and I wanted to tell you that’. I replied, ‘Thank you. It was a wonderful experience for me. We had a fantastic band, and of course, it’s been a pleasure working with Eric’.

“She continued, ‘My son really likes the record, too. Do you know the spot where Clapton hollers out your name after that tune?’ I admitted, ‘Yeah. I can’t believe the producer, Russ Titelman kept Eric’s ad-lib intact, but they did.’ ‘Well, my son really likes that part.’

“I was becoming very confused at this point. I sheepishly inquired, ‘First of all, how old is your boy?’ ‘He’s six years old.’ I had to ask her, ‘Why does he get so excited when he hears Eric say ‘Chuck Leavell!’ ‘Because he thinks Clapton said ‘chocolate milk’” [laughs].

Chuck Leavell Setlist, February 5, 2010, Benefit for GraceWay Recovery, Albany Municipal Auditorium, Albany, Georgia

  1. “In the Wee Wee Hours” [Written by Roy Byrd; on Leavell’s Live in Germany, 2008]
  2. “Keep on Gwine” [Instrumental by New Orleans pianist James Booker]
  3. Route 66” [Bobby Troupe; The Rolling Stones, 1964, and Live in Germany]
  4. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” [Jimmy Cox; Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, 1992]
  5. Living in a Dream” [Sea Level’s On the Edge, 1978, and Live in Germany]
  6. Tumbling Dice” [The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., 1972; and Live in Germany]
  7. Honky Tonk Women” [The Rolling Stones’ Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2), 1969, and Live in Germany; here is a live version with former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue]
  8. Dead Flowers” [The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, 1971; a Leavell live version]
  9. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” [Hank Williams]
  10. No Special Rider” [Little Brother Montgomery; Leavell’s Back to the Woods, 2012]
  11. Vicksburg Blues” [Little Brother Montgomery: Back to the Woods]
  12. Rip This Joint” [The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., and Live in Germany]
  13. Blue Rose” [Instrumental; Leavell’s Forever Blue, 2001, and Live in Germany]
  14. A Song For Amy” [Instrumental; Sea Level’s Cats on the Coast, 1978, and Forever Blue]
  15. Ashley” [Instrumental; Leavell’s Southscape, 2005]
  16. Here Comes the Sun” [The Beatles’ Abbey Road, 1969, and Live in Germany]
  17. Alberta, Alberta” [aka “Corrine, Corrina;” Traditional; Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, and Live in Germany]
  18. Down the Road Apiece” [Don Raye; The Rolling Stones, Now!, 1965, and Live in Germany]
  19. Jessica” [The Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters, 1973, Southscape, and Live in Germany]
  20. Encore: “Georgia on My Mind” [Forever Blue and Live in Germany]

© Jeremy Roberts, 2013, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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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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