Chuck Leavell Photo courtesy Allen Farst Photography
Chuck Leavell photo courtesy Allen Farst Photography

Chuck Leavell

Chuck Leavell, the Rolling Stones’ de facto musical director, has played keyboards for the group on record and on tour since 1982. Earlier, he was a member of the Allman Brothers Band (it’s his piano solo you hear on their classic “Jessica”) and a cofounder of the jazz-rock outfit Sea Level, which took its moniker from his first initial and surname. 

Leavell has also performed or recorded with many other leading musicians, including Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, George Harrison, the Black Crowes, and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. The latest of his six solo albums, last year’s Chuck Gets Big, finds him backed by a 17-piece brass band and performing original songs alongside classics from the Stones, the Allman Brothers, and other artists.

Leavell is as passionate about the environment as he is about music. He cofounded Mother Nature Network, an environmental news website that attracts more than 10 million monthly visitors; and he manages a 4,000-acre forestry plantation of southern yellow pine in Georgia, where he lives with his wife of 46 years, Rose Lane. His TV show, America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell, features individuals who are passionate about preserving forest habitats. He has written three books on that subject as well as an autobiography, Between Rock and a Home Place.

We caught up with him in Chicago, where he was performing with the Stones on their 2019 North American tour.

You credit your mother with teaching you something important about music.
My mom would say, “Chuck, what do you think a big storm would sound like [as music]?” Or, “What do you think it would sound like if you hit a home run on your baseball team?” Or, “What do you think it might sound like if you were mad at one of your friends?” It made me think of music much more in terms of feelings than of notes and chords.

When you were 13, you saw Ray Charles in concert. What impact did that have on you?
He was such a powerful performer with such a great voice and was such a great piano player. And he had a great band. I left that concert thinking there was only one career choice for me. If I could ever be in a band that moved people the way this band moved me, that would achieve my life’s goal.

The following year, you were in a band. What made you think you could be successful as a musician?
I had the passion for it. The other musicians were quite good, and we practiced three or four times a week, learning whatever records had come out that week so we could play them at our regular YMCA Friday night show. Then we were invited to be the band for a Saturday morning program modeled after American Bandstand. We were paid 50 bucks at the YMCA for four guys [to split] and 100 bucks for the TV program. It made us be disciplined at that young age to learn new music and to keep things fresh.

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At age 20 you were asked to join the Allman Brothers. How did that happen?
I’d moved to Macon, Georgia and did some recording in Muscle Shoals and heard about Capricorn Records. Then I was invited to play on Gregg Allman's first solo record, Laid Back, and thatled to the invitation to join the Allman Brothers Band.

You had some good years after the Allmans broke up with Sea Level and other work, but I understand that you got to a point where you contemplated quitting music.
In 1981, I had a little trio and was playing small clubs, but the phone wasn't ringing for session work and Capricorn Records had gone bankrupt, so my musical career was floundering. I came home frustrated one day and talked to my wife. I said, “Rosie, obviously music isn’t doing all that great right now, so maybe I should just focus on the land and learn more about forestry.” She listened patiently and said, “Well, that's interesting Chuck, but guess what? The Rolling Stones called you.” I thought she was pulling my leg, but she gave me the number. I called and within about 48 hours I was on the plane to do the audition.

And so you became their pianist as well as musical director.
Yes. That term “musical director” sort of evolved through these 37 years in part because I've always taken copious notes. There's a tremendous body of work, and I've got two huge books of notes. That led me to being the go-to guy when we would review any particular song that we hadn't done in a while. So I was given that title.

What artists have you most enjoyed working with?
Certainly, the biggest early break was the Allman Brothers Band—a huge boost to my career musically, financially, the travel, the exposure to large audiences, and the opportunity to record. And we had a really good run as Sea Level. But how can I not say the Rolling Stones? It was just such an incredible opportunity when that phone call came and they put me to work in 1982. 

In my career, one thing has led to another. The 1989 tour with the Rolling Stones with Eric Clapton as a special guest led to Eric inviting me to play with him, which I did for about two and a half years. The relationship with Eric led to the invitation to do George Harrison's last tour. And in subsequent years, working for John Mayer on a couple of records, and then touring with David Gilmour. 

Courtesy Chuck Leavell/file
Courtesy Chuck Leavell/file

How much of your career resulted from happenstance?
When I was very young, my dad said, “You make your own luck.” To me, that means learning how to be in the right place at the right time. I've always tried to keep my ears and eyes open for opportunities. That advice has always served me well.

Which artists have been difficult to work with?
When I joined the Allman Brothers Band, it was not long after they’d lost Duane Allman to the motorcycle accident, so I came in during turbulent times. And there was more turbulence when the band temporarily broke up in 1976, which led to forming Sea Level. You sometimes go through difficult times with any artist. But you persevere. 

What new acts are you listening to now?
St. Paul & the Broken Bones, a soul group from Birmingham, Alabama. They are absolutely fantastic.

What artists do you wish you could play with?
I’ve played with Bonnie Raitt a couple of times and if she rang me up to play on a record, I would jump at that. There are a couple of others, like Jackson Browne. I've never recorded with him, but I've always loved his music.

You’re on tour with the Stones now. How is it?
Just getting back in front of the audience after having the postponement for a couple of months due to Mick's health issue was magical—interacting with the crowd, getting the train back on the tracks, so to speak.

Do you think that this Stones tour will be the last?

The band loves performing, and the passion and groove are still there. My gut feeling is no, it's not the last time.

You've seen a lot of changes in the music business during your long career. Where do you think it is headed?
Look, anybody can have a studio in their house or basement, or on their laptop, which means artists can make records on a label or self-release or just stream. It really crowds the field, and you have to go through a lot of weeding to find the good stuff. On the other side of the coin, it seems to me that most labels are only interested in a hit these days. Unless you're already very established, like a Madonna or U2 or Bruce Springsteen, it certainly is not like what it used to be. I think the labels overlook a lot of good artists because they'd rather take their chances on something that they think is going to be a hit, usually something that's not necessarily that artful.

Courtesy Chuck Leavell/file
Courtesy Chuck Leavell/file

I've been in the business a long time and never would have predicted that the computer and digital worlds would have had this big of an effect on how we create and release music. I guess you're [someday] going to have a brain implant that'll get you any song that anybody in the world can write.

How did your involvement with tree farming and conservation begin? 
It started with my wife inheriting land in the 1980s from her grandmother. Her family have been stewards of the land for generations. I wanted to make sure that whatever we did going forward was going to be something that would be good for the land. That's how we got into forestry. 

Where does that marvelous thing that has given me such a great career and so much joy come from? It comes from the resource of wood. There's a direct connection between the instrument that I play and where it comes from. When I was performing with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, I did a correspondence course in forestry that really helped me gain some knowledge; then, I got into advocacy. Then came Mother Nature Network and my TV program, America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell, for which we’ve completed three episodes.

What are your thoughts on climate-change initiatives and how they relate to your forestry conservation efforts?
We are experiencing a pretty drastic climate change throughout the planet and mankind is mostly responsible. I don't understand why those who deny it don't see the truth. We need to engage in policies that can make a difference and this administration doesn't seem interested in that. That's disturbing. 

Do you ever get tired of touring?
It's what I've done since I was 17, so it's my life. I love travel. I love either going to new places or going back to places that I've been many times before and seeing some of the changes. 

What’s it like flying privately with the Stones? 
My wife travels with me everywhere and flying private makes it easy for us. And you're with your family of band members. There are no distractions as you would encounter with the commercial airlines. And the service is amazing. You walk on the plane, and there's already a layout of food. Private flying certainly takes some of the strain out of travel.

Do you remember the first time you flew privately?
Yes. With the Allman Brothers Band, and we had what was then known as the Starship, which Led Zeppelin and Elton John also used. It had a bar with an organ built into the bar. It was pretty luxurious. At one point on a Stones tour in the 90s, we used the Sultan of Brunei's 747. It was one of the most luxurious airplanes I've ever been on.

How often are you now flying privately?
Probably 50 to 60 percent of the time, and with the Stones, always. 

When you’re flying with the Stones, does the band jam on board?|Not so much. It's usually, let's get from A to B. We have had some challenges. In Jakarta [Indonesia], the luggage truck ran into one of the engines and the charter operator said, “It's a four-engine plane, we'll be fine.” We said, “No, we won't be fine.” We abandoned that flight and had to cancel the show because of it.



Do the Stones own the airplane they fly?
No, it's always a charter. They're not interested in having to maintain their own plane.

Many rock stars’ marriages don't last, but yours has endured for nearly half a century. Why do you think you've managed to make it work?
I think the adage is give and take, which you have to learn through the course of the marriage. Both of our parents stayed together till they passed away, so we had role models. I think those are the main ingredients. The sticktoitiveness, give and take, and sharing joy together. That's what Rosie and I do each and every day.

Any new projects?
I'd like to do another children's book oriented toward music. I've also got an idea for a gospel record to show how rock piano is evolved mainly from gospel. The title would be The Gospel According to Chuck. Also, recently, Rose Lane and I purchased another piece of land, which is in need of some restoration. 

What has music done for you?
It's given me an incredible career. It has taught me how to communicate with people through music and the importance of that. And it's shown me how music can change people's lives, literally. It can make people fall in love. Music can change the world.



FAST FACTS

NAME: Charles (“Chuck”) A. Leavell

BORN: April 8, 1952 (age 67), Birmingham, Alabama

POSITION: Pianist and musical director for the Rolling Stones since 1982

PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Cofounder of jazz-rock ensemble Sea Level. Member of Allman Brothers Band.Keyboardist with many artists, including Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, John Mayer, and George Harrison. 

EDUCATION: Left high school midway through senior year to pursue music. Has honorary doctorates from Central Michigan University, Mercer University, Bowdoin College in Maine, and the Warnell School of Forest and Environmental Resources at the University of Georgia.

TRANSPORTATION: Flies privately on tour with the Rolling Stones and other artists.

CHARITIES: Has endowed the Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell Scholarship at the Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources at the University of Georgia. Contributes to Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and Methodist Home for Children & Youth in Macon, Georgia. 

PERSONAL: Lives in Bullard, Georgia with Rose Lane Leavell, his wife since 1973. Two grown daughters: Amy, 44, and Ashley, 37. Three grandchildren and another on the way.

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