The Director Is In: Chuck Leavell Talks The Rolling Stones, David Gilmour, Karl D & More

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Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Joe Russo, Oteil Burbridge, Joel Cummins, Scott Sharrard, Marco Benevento, Kyle Hollingsworth and many more. (A full archive of The Art Of The Sit-In is here.)

Words by: Chad Berndtson

When you have a resume like Chuck Leavell’s, even the term “legendary sideman” seems a bit too neat and narrow. Leavell’s put his stamp — and his world-class keyboard chops — on so many world-famous and historically significant bands and musicians that you want to turn over your entire editorial column space just to hear stories about one or two, and then come back for third and fourth helpings on entirely different subjects.

Chuck was a member of The Allman Brothers Band during the peak of its ’70s popularity — that’s his piano you hear on the take of “Jessica” that blasts from radios the world over. The sum total of his collaborations in more than 50 years as an active musician includes names such as David Gilmour, Sea Level, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, John Mayer, The Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule, Miranda Lambert and Widespread Panic. And that’s to say nothing of his much-lauded work in tree farming, conservation and environmental issues.

Perhaps Leavell’s best-known association, at least for the last, oh, three decades, has been as a touring member and musical director for The Rolling Stones. Chuck’s been right there with Mick, Keith, Ronnie, Charlie and the rest since more or less 1982, with plenty of water under the bridge. Now, as The Stones prepare to join other legends of rock ‘n’ roll at next month’s inaugural Desert Trip festival in California, Leavell reflected on his many years on the road and his associations in the jam scene.

JAMBASE: Are you excited for Desert Trip? What for specifically?

CHUCK LEAVELL: I’m excited anytime I get to play. Especially with The Stones, but this will be a very perhaps matchless experience. Coachella has gained a great reputation as a venue, and to be able to play with so many other iconic artists — [Bob] Dylan, Neil Young, Macca [Paul McCartney], The Who — it’s not every weekend that folks get that kind of dose of music.

JAMBASE: Is the band planning anything special for this show? Of course everyone wants to know if there will be any collaboration.

CL: Rehearsals start in plenty of time for us to have a look at the possibilities. We always try to pull something special out of the hat for an event like this. As for possible collaborations, we likely won’t know until we get there. But no doubt the respective presentations will all be stellar.

JAMBASE: You’re the longtime musical director for The Stones’ touring band. How has that role changed over time? What’s different about The Stones as a live unit now, versus say, 10 or even 20 years ago?

CL: My role with the band has morphed over time. When I first came in in 1982 for a European tour, we played the same set every night, no changes in the songs. Then we had several years of no touring, but recording a couple of records. Then in ‘89 we did the Steel Wheels record and the band decided to tour behind it. When we got to rehearsals, I encouraged everyone to dive deep into the catalog and have a close look at songs the band hadn’t played in a long time. Plus, of course we had new songs to get into the set as well. So we had a very long rehearsal period, I remember about six weeks. I started taking notes every day of what songs we tried, what the arrangements were, if we had any special vocal harmonies, horn parts, that kind of thing. So I sort of became a kind of documentarian.

Since then, I have continued the process, so consequently, I now am the go-to guy if anyone couldn’t remember particular arrangements. That has translated into sometimes giving cues on stage for certain spots. I also have kept track of things like the tempos, sounds and such. In terms of the difference between then and now, I can only say that honestly the band has never sounded better. Everyone still has the passion and drive for what we do, and that has only gotten stronger. The band loves doing special events, like the concert we did in Cuba recently. And in the past, playing places like Prague not long after the Wall fell in 1989. We’ve done the Super Bowl, a free concert in Rio back in 2006 where we played to something like a million and a half people. The Desert Trip promises to be an historic event, and we’ll be up to the task.

JAMBASE: What do you like most about your role with The Stones?

CL: I suppose it is so much about the interaction with everyone on stage. Having the guys occasionally look to me for some degree of direction and being in the center of things. I also tell folks that my favorite time with the band is in rehearsals. We try a lot of things out, many of which don’t make it to the stage for one reason or another, but getting to play them with the guys is a real treat. Plus, there are always lots of fun jams in rehearsals. Great stuff.

JAMBASE: How do you all select the setlist and what older material to un-mothball?

CL: It is a process. We think of the set in terms of an outline, dividing it up into “sections.” Then we look at filling those sections with certain songs. Of course we want the fans to hear the big hits, in part that’s what so many of them come for, and would leave quite disappointed if they didn’t hear them. But there is also space for a few “deep tracks,” and we experiment with those and change them in and out from time to time to keep things fresh. It’s a lot of fun putting together a Stones set.

JAMBASE: What is the biggest misconception people have about The Rolling Stones, you think?

CL: I think people tend to overlook the work ethic. So many folks think, ”Ah, it must be such a breeze living the lifestyle you guys live … traveling around the world and playing those songs …” Well, yeah, it is great. But it is not a “breeze.” It takes a lot of work on everyone’s part and getting there takes discipline, dedication, passion, preparation, creativity … all of that and more. It’s not as easy as it looks!

JAMBASE: Karl Denson is well-known to the jam band community and it sounds like he and you get along famously, evidenced by many collaborations in and outside of The Stones. Tell me about your relationship with Karl.

CL: I didn’t know him until he came into the band. But when I was told about him, I did some research and found out how cool he is and about his great band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. We became fast friends from the beginning, and he kindly invited me to do some shows with his band as a special guest. I’m sure we will do more collaborations as time allows. He’s a fantastic player and a great guy, and I’m proud to know him as a friend and associate.

JAMBASE: You’ve played with a number of major artists from our scene, from Gov’t Mule to Widespread Panic. What do you like most about the jam scene?

CL: Well, as the name of the genre indicates, there is some jamming going on. In other words, experimentations, fooling around with the “unknown” … taking things as they come and not being too structured. Sometimes you find yourself with the feeling of about to fall off a cliff, but most of the time there is a miraculous recovery. It’s a lot of fun and very stimulating to get out there sometimes. And even if it doesn’t always work as you might fancy, you find that you learn something from trying.

JAMBASE: Who would you like to collaborate with that you haven’t, and why?

CL: I just finished an incredible tour with David Gilmour. He is such an amazing artist and a real solid guy. His whole family: his wife, Polly Samson, who writes a lot of the lyrics to his songs, his lovely kids, all so great to be with. The band was top notch, as was the staff and crew on the tour. So I’m hoping to do more with him up the road. We’ll see.

Also, the work I did with John Mayer was so stimulating and fun, and as we know, he has knocked it out of the park on the Dead & Company tours. So I’m hoping to do some more things with him sometime. As for others that I’ve not had the pleasure to work with yet … Geez, well, I did do a couple of songs at an event in San Francisco a few years back with Sting, but I’d love to work with him more in earnest someday. Adele has an amazing voice, an artist that comes around once in a generation. I would love to record something with her someday.

JAMBASE: Tell me more about the Gilmour experience. How did that come about?

CL: Back in 1984, I was musical director on a live MTV broadcast called Guitar Greats. David was one of the special guests, along with Dickey Betts, Tony Iommi, Steve Cropper, the great Link Wray and a host of others. It was a sort of fast and furious experience, as we had to back up all these artists in a quick rehearsal, then do the show. But it went really well and was a successful show. Then fast forward to the early ‘90s when I was playing with Clapton. We were rehearsing in London and David came to hang out some. He invited me and a couple of others in the band to his house. We had a nice time talking about music and life in general, enjoyed some fine wine together. Then years went by without any communication and earlier this year I get a message on the guest book of my website: ”Chuck … David Gilmour here … HONEST”. I first thought it was a joke, but as he gave me his email address, I figured I’d at least follow-up, and of course it turned out to be real. Again, I can’t say enough about David as a player, singer, artist and person. Just fantastic.

JAMBASE: What do you have planned for your own music in the next year or so? What else is on your plate?

CL: My latest idea is to just go into the studio with no solid plan and just play. I enjoyed doing Back To The Woods, a tribute to pioneering blues piano players, so I could do more of that. Do some gospel songs, maybe write some, do covers of songs I enjoy playing. My Christmas record, What’s In That Bag, was fun to do and I’ve wanted to do another one for a long time, so the thought is just go in and play whatever feels good, then sort it out later in terms of packaging and releasing. I’ve also been thinking about doing a solo tour, just me and the piano, playing good clubs and theaters. We’ll see.

JAMBASE: This column for JamBase always concludes with a sit-in story: either you with another group or someone sitting in with one of yours. What was your favorite sit-in activity recently? What comes to mind, and why was it fun?

CL: Well, it wasn’t recently. But it was certainly life-changing. Back in 1981 I did an audition with The Stones. Ian Stewart was my contact and the person who picked me up at the airport. We hit it off right away. They had heard about me and contacted me to come up to Longview Farm in Massachusetts to try out. It went well, but I didn’t get the gig right away. They took Ian McLagan out as he had been touring with them before. Then they came to Atlanta on that tour and played an unannounced show at the Fox Theater. Ian Stewart, who I had become good friends with, called me and asked if I’d like to come up and jam with them on a couple of tunes.

The moment came and he signaled me to get on stage, and he left me on piano with Mac playing organ. We did a couple of Chuck Berry songs and it was all really rockin’. Mac was so cool, and about halfway through it all he leaned over to me and said, ”Ah, you’ve done this before, haven’t ya?” It was such a sweet thing to say and we became great friends after that. We all still miss both Ians: Stu and Mac. Both left some heavy footprints with The Stones and others. It was an honor to know and to play with them.

We don’t currently have any upcoming shows for The Rolling Stones.

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