HIT CHANNEL INTERVIEW: September 2012. We had the great honour to talk to a great musician and a fine person: Chuck Leavell. Chuck is the keyboardist of The Rolling Stones since 1982 and he has also played with The Allman Brothers Band, Sea Level, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Aretha Franklin, Gov’t Mule, The Black Crowes, The Marshall Tucker Band, John Mayer and others. His latest solo album is the amazing “Back To The Woods: a tribute to the pioneers of blues piano” with guest appearances by Keith Richards, John Mayer, Danny Barnes and more. Read below the very interesting things he told us:
Yes, I had a wonderful feedback on “Back To The Woods”. The fact is that a lot of people aren’t aware of these piano players. When people think of the blues, they might think of the guitar players, they might think of the blues singers and songwriters, but the whole idea with this project is to bring to light wonderful artists that contributed to the blues genre by playing piano. The new songs were received very-very well this year in the States and we will be pleased to be in Europe soon.
Was it difficult to persuade Keith Richards, John Mayer, Danny Barnes and others to play in “Back To The Woods”?
Yes, we definitely wanted to have some special guests on the project. I’m playing with the Rolling Stones for 30 years, and of course it would be a nice idea to ask Keith to play in the project, and ofcourse Keith loves the blues and he was very happy to join in, and I was very grateful that he did it. And ofcourse, I have been working with John Mayer for the past year; I played in his latest recording “Born and Raised”. John and I, have a strong friendship and I thought about him as a guest to participate. And then we had other guests that they are a little closer to the South: we have Candi Staton, a wonderful rhythm & blues and soul singer. We have Col. Bruce Hampton, a great singer who lives near to me, and then we have my good friend Randall Bramblett who played saxophone. Randall was in my band Sea Level and I know him for years. So, it was great to have all these friends and a lot of others to join me in this project.
Do you think “Back To The Woods” it’s also a chance for younger people to discover the music of Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Otis Spann, Ray Charles and others?
Certainly, it’s my hope that a lot of other people would look to this project, would listen to it and then read the liner notes, because in the booklet which is coming with the CD, we have a lot of information about Little Brother Montgomery, Leroy Carr and so many others. So, the young folks could have a better understanding of the history of the blues and especially the history of the blues as related with the piano.
Are there any plans for a solo tour for “Back To The Woods”?
Yes, I have been playing quite a lot shows here in the United States to promote it. Mostly in the South. Not so long time ago, in April, I played in the New Orleans Jazz Fest. I had a great, great set there and we had a big crowd. I have a show in Atlanta that I’m looking forward to. I’ve been somewhat selective in the shows that I choose, rather than to go out and play anywhere and everywhere which is a waste of time and actually causes to you to lose money. I just feel I’d rather be very selective to the shows I choose to do. But then in addition to the live performances, I ‘m doing a lot of media: I’m on several television programs and I have a very busy schedule.
You are co-founder of the environmental news site Mother Nature Network (www.mnn.com ). Did you expect this incredible success when it officially launched in January 2009?
Yes, we launched it in January 2009, and since that time in has become the most visited environmental site in the world. I’m very proud for that. It shows how much people really do care about environmental issues. We have a lot of volunteers and what we try to do in www.mnn.com is to deal reasonable solutions to environmental problems and to make people aware of these problems, so this knowledge could make us all behave better to the environment we live.
You have also written some great books like “Growing A Better America: Smart, Strong, Sustainable”. Does writing books distract you from creating more music?
No, not at all. It’s matter of how you arrange your time. Today, I will go to my piano and practice. When I’m writing a book, a wake up very early in the morning, at 6 or 7 o’clock and write for a couple of hours, so I could have some time to do other things later in the day. Also, I work on the plantation, I have a tree farm here in Georgia. So, often I’m outside doing activities, trying to grow the land. It’s a matter of arranging your time wisely and carefully and I’m very passionate about all things: about music, about our tree farm, about the environmental issues and for the writing…
Are you participating in the new Rolling Stones songs “Gloom and Doom” and “One Last Shot”, which will be released in November?
Yes, I’m very excited about the songs which will be released about the anniversary of 50 years in November. We were in Paris to record them. Keith brought the song “One Last Shot”, which has a really great title and with this I think about how we could have another shot. We had a great fun during the recordings, we were all together, very close, and we all had some joy during the process. We will see if the men will decide to some other activity. Right now, there is no announcement to be made. But, I ‘m certainly hopeful to be able to do some other activity. More than it is.
In February, you and the other existing members of The Allman Brothers Band received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. How much emotional was that moment for you?
Well, it was such a meaningful moment for me and I was so pleased to be included. As you know it’s been a long time since I was in The Allman Brothers Band, however we all remained good friends throughout all these years and additionally to find myself onstage with the other Allman Brothers Band, sitting with Gregg (ed: Allman) and all the other guys. We maintain a wonderful relationship. Wow, what an honour to achieve a Lifetime Achievement Award!! I think the music that we made back in the ‘70s when I was in the band still stands popular today. The young folks enjoy listening to it. It’s a good feeling to know that it has lasted on.
Do you consider Allman Brothers Band’s classic “Brothers and Sisters” as one of the highlights of your career?
Oh, absolutey. I was merely 20 years old when I joined the band and it was a wonderful opportunity for a young person like myself to get his career started with a record like this. The band was making very elevated music and it was wonderful to be a part of that. I think this record is one of the most popular records of the early ‘70s. It sells well today and you can listen to these songs on the radio and I’m very grateful for that.
I think this record is a turning point for John. “Born and Raised” is quite different from the other records that John has made. I think it’s a really great collection of songs for John. It shows that John is maturing as an artist. As far as the songs now, are not so much trying to be something to get on the radio, there are more sincere songs from his heart and his soul. I think they are really great songs, great material. Ofcourse as we know, John has a problem with his throat that he’s addressing, it’s called granuloma. He has been treated right now, for the second time. Certainly, all the people in music are wishing him well, to have a successful process and to fully recover. .
Can you describe us your feelings the first time you played with Chuck Berry?
With Chuck Berry?! Well, I played with Chuck back on the film “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll”, along with Keith Richards. That’s quite mysterious, it was a great opportunity to more or less say “thank you” to Chuck Berry for the great music he gave us in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. After that, I played with Chuck in a show in New York with John Entwistle (The Who) on bass, Terry Williams from Dire Straits on drums and Dave Edmunds on guitar. We had a fantastic show then in New York. So, I was able to play with Chuck Berry a few times, it was always a pleasure. He’s very-very advanced in age right now. Amazingly, he’s still around, he’s a living legend and he still does shows and continues to be active.
Where do you prefer playing gigs: in stadiums or in clubs? Some say that smaller venues are warmer.
Well, you know it‘s a great joy to play in all these different settings. For me, quite honestly it doesn’t matter if there are 5 people or 50 or 500 or 500.000. I will go out and have a good time and play the best I can. It’s interesting to be in all these situations. I know many artists who would be very happy to have a career with one artist or one band. But for me it’s a great experience to have worked with The Rolling Stones all these years, The Allman Brothers Band, I toured with Eric Clapton, I have worked with George Harrison, The Black Crowes, John Mayer and so many other artists. For me it doesn’t really matter how small or how big an audience is, it’s all about music and it’s all about make people happy and enjoy themselves.
You toured and recorded “Live in Japan” with George Harrison. How was George as a person and as a collaborator?
George was one of the most wonderful people ever met. He had a huge heart, he wasn’t great only in music, he did a lot of things. He did a lot for the people. He is the first rock musician who did a concert for a humanitarian cause on a big scale with “Concert For Bangladesh”, so long ago (1971). Also another thing is that George was a so easy person to be with. You know, stars, movie stars, rock ’n’ roll stars, are sometimes a little bit cold with other people, when they are so famous. George, unlike other people, was very-very easy to talk to, very comfortable to be with. He wasn’t only one of the greatest songwriters/singers/musicians in the history.
Look, what happened it was: I came in Eric’s band during “24 Nights” project. That was 24 shows at The Royal Albert Hall (ed: with different line-ups). I played on 18 of those 24 nights and it was an absolutely wonderful experience. And then, Eric and the band decided to take some time off, to spent some time with his son, Conor and relax for a while and that’s when the very tragic accident happened to Eric: his son, Conor, felt out of the window and was killed. That point, was a heartbreak for Eric and for all of us who worked with Eric. The dealing was, rather than take some time off and fall into depression, he said “I will work. I want something to keep active my mind. I want to go out and play music”. And then we went on tour, and then Eric wanted to continue touring and that’s how we went to play in the “Unplugged” show. We did a setting and a video recording for the “Unplugged” record. And then we continued to tour for a year and a half after that. We had some cold times on tour with Eric, psychologically and because of the death of his son, but I think the music helped him to heal. Eric made the decision to continue to work and I think it helped him out very much.
Is there anyone you’d like to play with and hasn’t happened yet?
Yeah, yeah (laughs) !! I’m very luck to play with a lot of different artists but there are other artists I’d love to work with. I played one show with Sting. It was a show with several artists, Sting was one of those artists. That was a good experience, I ‘d love to work with him personally. I love The Who, I would be incredibly happy to work with The Who. I was always interested in their music. I’m sure there are others out there I’d love to work with but I’m fortunate to do what I do and I enjoy my career and I will certainly continue to enjoy it. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
What do you remember the most from Ian Stewart (co-founder, keyboardist and tour manager of The Rolling Stones; known as the “sixth Stone”. He also played in Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” and “Boogie With Stu”)?
Well, Ian Stewart was very much like a big brother to me. When I first got a call from the Rolling Stones for an audition, it was Ian Stewart who called and it was Ian Stewart who picked me up in the airport. Immediately, we became friends. Stu was a great boogie-woogie piano player and he introduced me to a lot of old blues music. For instance, when we toured in London with the Rolling Stones, Stu told me “Chuck, you are not gonna stay at the hotel, you gonna stay with me, at my house”. He had two large pianos and a large record collection. I stayed there and we spent personal time listening to Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and others. He turned me on being a better boogie-woogie player and a better rock ‘n’ roll player. Stu was a very important person in my life and still is, and ofcourse all of us in the Stones still talk about Stu and listen to him very much.
Had you ever met Vic Chesnutt (great songwriter from Athens, Georgia, now deceased)?
I have certainly heard about Vic Chesnutt , but I hadn’t ever been able to meet or play with him, unfortunately. He was a very interesting as singer/songwriter and player but I never met him personally.
You know there are a lot of piano players and keyboard players in rock ‘n’ roll throughout decades and certainly Ray is one of the major players in rock ‘n’ roll. I think he’s a great player. Ofcourse, there were other players in the history of Rolling Stones, like Ian McLagan (The Faces, The Small Faces), Jack Nitzsche and Billy Preston. All of them had a great contribution not only to The Rolling Stones, but to other bands in their career. All these people are very important to rock ‘n’ roll.
You played in Greece in 1998 and you had announced a show in 2006 too, but Keith had the tree accident. Do you think you owe a show to the Greek fans?
Well, that is a tragic thing that had to happen when Keith was injured on vacations he had and we postponed a lot of cities and places and it was very unfortunate. We did the very best we could, to do the shows we had to cancel and caused that problem but unfortunately we couldn’t do all the shows. So, we hope we can do it sometime in the future. The band loves to play all over the world. We would love to come back to Greece for sure. I would love it.
Do you remember the 1998 Athens show?
Yes, the travels we had and the experiences were amazing. As a matter of fact, in that particular show my wife was travelling with me and my friends travelled to Athens. We had some days to enjoy ourselves. We travelled only to Mykonos and we explored the wonderful food and the wonderful culture of Greece and it provided great memories to me. All I can say is, I hope to come back and enjoy again.
A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr Chuck Leavell for his time and to Dan Beeson for his help to make this interview happen.
Please check www.chuckleavell.com