Sit Chuck Leavell behind a piano and the South, in all its musical richness, comes to life.
You hear jazz that swings with a boppish stride. Then come soul, blues and R&B accents that sound as if they were sweated out in the barrooms of Muscle Shoals. Capping it all are boogie woogie rolls seemingly bound for New Orleans.
“People have asked me to describe, in a couple of words, what my music is and where it comes from,” said Leavell, who performs Monday for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. “I just say it’s like a warm Southern night.”
For Leavell, nighttime has been long and sweet indeed. Look over his dossier and you will discover a ridiculously extensive list of names he has toured and/or recorded with over the past four decades. He was there for commercial Southern rock apex of The Allman Brothers Band (beginning with the landmark 1973 album Brothers and Sisters), the early ‘90s renaissance of Eric Clapton (including his multi-Grammy winning 1992 concert recording Unplugged) and one of the only non-Beatles tours by George Harrison (chronicled on 1992’s Live in Japan).
A partial list of others he has pounded the keys for: Aretha Franklin, The Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule, Billy Joe Shaver, Indigo Girls, Brian Setzer, John Hiatt and Kentucky’s own Montgomery Gentry.
Oh yes, there is also that outfit from England that Leavell has toured and recorded with for over a quarter century: The Rolling Stones.
Curiously, it wasn’t until a two year tour with the Stones wound down in Europe last fall that an opportunity surfaced for Leavell’s own music to take the spotlight again. The initial idea was to stay in Europe, where the Stones tour ended, and perform a series of solo piano concerts. Then Leavell met up with an industrious team of German musicians that learned, with very little rehearsal time, a repertoire that covered nearly all of the keyboardist’s musical life – from covers of staples popularized by Ray Charles and Lexington native Les McCann, to Allmans favorites. The repertoire also took in compositions from Sea Level, the fusion-flavored band that teamed Leavell with another great Southern songsmith, Randall Bramblett, in the late ’70s, as well as instrumental works from such recent solo albums as Forever Blue and Southscape. And, yes, some distinctive treatments of Rolling Stones tunes made their way into the set list, too.
“I’ve been with the Stones for 25 years,” Leavell said. “So I think it’s legal now for me to do some of that music on my own.”
A resulting chronicle of that brief tour, Live in Germany, was released earlier this summer. The record is, in essence, a primer on Leavell’s music for patrons that may know little about his playing outside of the major league artists he has been associated with.
“The music on Live in Germany is who I am,” Leavell said. “It’s what I do and what my career has been about. I’ve been so lucky to play in these different settings. So this is just a celebration of that career and some of the things I’ve been fortunate enough to do.”
Born and raised in Alabama, Leavell relocated to Georgia in 1969. Following work with Alex Taylor and Dr. John, he joined the Allmans. Curiously, the buoyant boogie woogie piano so prevalent on Live in Germany wasn’t so much a product of the South as it was the result of a friendship struck up with veteran Rolling Stone pianist/road manager Ian Stewart.
In an apprenticeship of sorts, Leavell joined the Stones in 1981, just as Stewart was playing one his final tours with the band. Stewart died in 1985.
“Stu turned me on to a genre of music that I had not really paid that much attention to, that being the sounds of the boogie woogie masters,” Leavell said. “He had me listening to people like Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Montana Taylor… I could go on and on.
“In particular, I learned so much about left hand technique in the boogie woogie idiom from Stu. But I also loved his description of what the right hand needed to do. He always said (affecting a British accent), ‘You want to create diamond tiaras.’ So that’s what I do. I use that powerful, steady left hand and put the diamond tiaras on top. Man, Stu was such a big influence.”
But making the piano sing with one of the foremost rock ‘n’ roll bands in history is only one of the passions driving Leavell’s work life. When not onstage, he can often be found in front of a very different audience speaking on forestry and conservation. A champion environmentalist and tree farmer, Leavell operates Charlene Plantation in Macon, Georgia with his wife Rose Lane. The two were named National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year in 1999
In short, Leavell is as dedicated as much to the planet as he is to the music he makes on it.
“I think it’s wonderful to see the attitude that people have now about the environment. It’s not only in America. The whole planet is waking up and seeing the seriousness of the challenges we face. And I celebrate that. I think it’s about time.
“But it’s easy, I suppose, to get wrapped in music and the environment, especially when you’re as passionate as I am about both.”
Chuck Leavell performs at 7 p.m. Aug. 25 at the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. Tori Sparks is also a featured guest. The taping is sold out.