Yesterday, we presented the bulk of our recent phone interview with Chuck Leavell as a feature story. But Leavell has such an extensive musical history and was up for talking about any corner of it that a lot of insightful comments had to be omitted due to space.
So here we have an extra: Leavell talking about areas of his musical life not touched upon in yesterday’s piece.
The catalyst for nearly all of these comments is a new concert album, Live in Germany. Leavell recorded it immediately after finishing a two-year tour as keyboardist for The Rolling Stones, the iconic band he has played with for over a quarter century.
Q: On Live in Germany, you play with what amounts to a pick-up band – players that had very little rehearsal time for music that effectively covers your entire career. Can you describe the challenge of whipping this much music into performance shape so quickly with musicians that were entirely new to you?
A: All I can say is the enthusiasm was high on everybody’s part. Once I heard these guys play, I just thought, ‘How lucky am I?’ These guys weren’t fooling around. For their part, though, I think they were looking for a break from their normal routine. Some of the guys work for the HR Big Band (the German ensemble that has collaborated with such disparate artists as Jack Bruce and Bill Frisell). So this was a chance for them to break out of their mold and play some different kinds of music. I needed them, they needed me and it all worked out.
Q: You perform a version of Georgia on My Mind on Live in Germany, which might be seen as a tribute to your adopted home state (Leavell is a native of Alabama). But wasn’t Ray Charles also a formative influence?
A: Without a doubt. When I was about 13, I went to a Ray Charles concert with my older sister. We had some Ray Charles records in our house growing up, so I was familiar with him. But I didn’t give all that much of a thought going to the concert. But when they cranked up… man, oh, man, was it was such an incredible band. He had (David) Fathead Newman on the sax. He had the Raelettes singing so well and beautifully. He had Billy Preston on Hammond B3. And then, of course, there was Ray himself. It was such a powerful experience. It just moved me. It moved me more than any music up to that point. That’s when I seriously started pursuing a career and started to look for better musicians to play with
Q: Live in Germany also includes Compared to What, the early ‘70s jazz and R&B hit popularized by Lexington native Les McCann. How influential to you was that song?
A: Listen, I remember so well when that Montreux record came out by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. Swiss Movement it was called. Listening to that whole record but especially Compared to What was huge for me There was a big ‘wow’ factor when I heard that. McCann’s voice, his piano playing and the song itself, a Eugene McDaniel tune… it all affected me heavily. There was such a cool groove to it. I debated a bit playing that because it’s almost sacred ground. But I just love that song so much and was in the company of musicians that I thought could do it justice.
Q: There are two tunes from your days with the Allman Brothers Band on Live in Germany. One is Jessica, the Dickey Betts instrumental from the Brothers and Sisters album. The Allmans cut that in 1973, when you first joined the band. What was it like playing Jessica with a new arrangement and a pack of younger musicians?
A: That’s a matter of attitude, a matter of your own mind. I get questions from people like, ‘How can you play Honky Tonk Women with the Stones so many times and not get tired of it?’ Or, ‘How can you play Satisfaction or Jumping Jack Flash so much?’ To me, it’s just a matter of approach. You go out like it’s the first time you ever played it. With Jessica, as you mentioned, I got to play it from a different angle with these guys using saxophone to play part of the melody line. That provides an opportunity to freshen things up. We also extended the breakdown prior to the piano solo to build the excitement in that part of the song. Look, man, it’s a joy to have worked on records that have stood the test of time. And certainly Jessica has. It’s great to be able to play it 35 years later.
Q: You are also a tree farmer, forestry expert and staunch environmentalist. With your wife Rose Lane, you run Charlene Plantation in Macon. When your life isn’t fully immersed in music, does throwing yourself into one of these jobs help refresh your perspective when it comes time to work on music again?
A: Absolutely. I spent two years on tour with the Rolling Stones, having that be the focus for that period of time. I then immediately followed it up with my own tour, which was a joy to do. But as you can imagine, I was ready for a change. So to get back home and focus on environmental issues and give to them whole heartedly was wonderful. Now, when I sit back down at the piano, it’s not like I just came off a show with the Stones. My mind has been elsewhere. I have a fresh perspective on the music again.
Chuck Leavell performs at 7 tonight for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre. Tori Sparks will be the other featured guest. The taping is sold out.