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Chuck Leavell interview


April 12th, 1998. Just a day before the Rolling Stones perform their "Bridges to Babylon" show in Sao Paulo, the keybordist CHUCK LEAVELL gave an exclusive interview to "SUNRISE", a daily Radio Show (Radio Eldorado FM) dedicated to the rock'n'roll music. For about fourty minutes, Chuck had a very nice talk with the Sunrise hostess Rose de Oliveira. He talked about his career, influences, his new CD of Christmas Songs called "What's in That Bag" - and ...of course, about his work with The Rolling Stones. He also showed a little bit about his important work with ecology in his farm located in Macon (Georgia).

SUNRISE: First of all, we would like to thank you very much for your attention and for you're being so sympathetic to be with us here.

CHUCK: Well, it's a pleasure to speak with everyone there in Sao Paulo and we look forward to a show tomorrow. It's an honor to speak with you.

SUNRISE: First of all, we would like to tell you that the intention here is to prepare a special program focusing your own career specifically. We would like to start by asking you how your career actually started.

CHUCK: To begin with, I learn to play piano from my mother. She played piano when I was a small child. I used to listen to her play and I try to imitate what she did. That's how I first learn to play piano. Then, many years later I became interested in rock'n'roll music. I had a small band in the state of Alabama, where I came from, and we became very popular in our city, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was not very long before I made a commitment to myself that I wanna to play music for the rest of my life as a professional. From there, I had some good fortune when I moved to Georgia. I was 18 years old and within two years I landed the job with the Allman Brothers Band and from there, I played with many artists that came though the city of Macon/GA, where we recorded many, many artists there.

SUNRISE: Did you play with The Allman Brothers in the very beginning of the band?

CHUCK: No, I was not with The Allman Bros. in the beginning. I came in the Allman Brothers Band in the 1972. It was after the death of Duane Allman but before the death of Berry Oakley, who was the bass player in that time. What happened was that I had played with several artists and the two most significant were a man named Alex Taylor, who's James Taylor's elder brother, and also for a period of time I played with Dr. John. Both, Alex Taylor and Dr. John during those years, opened up many concerts for the Allman Brothers Band. So, I got to know the Allman Brothers Band personally from that experience. Then, when Duane died, the band went out on a concert tour and they only had a five piece band. No replacement for Duanne. After they came back from that tour, they decided that they wanted to try a different instrument in the band. Somehow my name came up and I went down as a request of the producer Johnnie Sandlin, that requested me to come to the studio and try I playing to the Allman Brothers Band to see what happened. Everything started working very well, the music sounded good, everyone felt very comfortable. So, within two weeks of the beginning of playing with them, they had a meeting and then called me and asked me to join to the band.

SUNRISE: Chuck, we would like to know something about your influences.

CHUCK: Well, many influences . The first influence as I have already mentioned was my mother, because she took me up to play. But through the years people like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Floyd Cramer, who's a famous country piano player; people like Leon Russell; of course Elton John and Andy Rau. Of jazz, people like Keith Jarrett, and many, many others that I can't name but those of some are very, very interesting.

SUNRISE: Would you include in that list of influences Mr. Johnnie Johnson?

CHUCK: Of course yes. I had the honor of working with Johnnie when Keith asked me to play on the Chuck Berry movie special that he did some years ago, and I had a wonderful time with Johnnie. He and I became very, very good friends. I would also add to that list someone very, very important that is Ian Stewart. I'm sure that most of your listeners knew Ian Stewart, or as most people called him "Stu". Stu was the 6th Stone and I think Stu was very influential in my getting the position with to The Rolling Stones, because he and I became friends very quickly when I was additioned to The Rolling Stones, back in the 1981. At that time, they were touring America and I was additioned and I was not asked immediately to tour with them, but only several months later, when they toured Europe they decided they wanted me to play. So, the first real involvement directly with the band was in1982 when I toured Europe with them, and I have been with them ever since.

SUNRISE: We are very aware of your concern regarding environment. We were also able to visit your site in the net, and we got to know you have this farm, where you have this major plantation of trees and that you're very much concerned about environment. Would you please tell us a little bit about this.

CHUCK: Absolutely! First of all, yes. I'm very, very concerned about forestland in America and forestland through out the entire world. And, of course, here in Brazil it's a very, very important issue as everyone knows. I like to say that trees give us so many wonderful things. Trees give us the material to build the homes; trees give us the material to make up our books and our magazines; trees give us place for the wildlife to live. And the so important, that we, the human race give back. We must give back to the forest. And the way that we can give back is though the best management of our forestland. And this is what I like to talk about to people throughout the world. I like to talk about the importance of managing the forest. It's ok to take some of our forestland to make up building materials; to make up books; to do the wonderful things that the trees give us. But we must manage so carefully. We must reforest our land where it's needed. We must be careful how much we take. It's also important to use the best techniques, so that we use as much of resources as we can. This is the message that I can forward. We have been very, very fortunate in America with our farm. Our farm is called Charlane Plantation and we like to think that our plantation, our forestland, is an example of good management. I like to talk about balance. It's very important to balance. Not only our forest but everything in our lives. In our forestland I concern we must balance the taking off the trees with the replanting of the trees, with reforestation.

SUNRISE: Have people around the world, where you have been traveled so much, been aware of what happened in the Amazon area last month with the fire in the State of Roraima?

CHUCK: Yes, of course. Personally, I'm very interested in this issue. So I knew about it from watching the news. But also many of my friends, some of the people travelling on this tour, for instance, asked me that just read about the forest in Brazil, that's burning and so many people are aware this problem. Not just the burning, but also the taking off the forest. It's common knowledge that Brazil is the number one country in the world in deforestation. The rate of taking the trees off the land in Brazil is number one. You know, it's a difficult problem, there are many things to consider. There is the economy to consider; there are people that are working in taking the forest; their jobs are to consider and it's a difficult issue. There's no easy answer. But I think that the most important thing is for everyone to watch very closely; and for everyone to be aware of what is going on. Because I think, if we are all aware, if we all see; if we all watch the news and understand what is going on, I think we will wake up. And I think we will change things and I think we will start working to find answers to help to solve these problems. There are very difficult problems.

SUNRISE: That's definitively very honorable your concern. It's really amazing the level of this concern. We are very fortunate to have people like you. We are very impressed visiting your site and we would like to congratulate you for such a beautiful job and having such a beautifully made site. Congratulations.

CHUCK: I appreciate that so much, thank you. And again, of the opportunity to speak to your listening audience about such this issue. I think it's very important and I only hope the people listing will pay very close attention to the forestland, not only in Brazil, but forestland everywhere, all over South America, North America, China, Russia and all of these countries, this is a very, very important issue. And I just hope that everyone will pay close attention and will take time, to learn what they can about it.

SUNRISE: Chuck, we are aware that you have your own band and that you had some gigs scheduled to play in Brazil last year, that were postponed because of the engagement with The Rolling Stones. We would like to know who the members of this band are and if you have any solo material or any CD that you could suggest to us.

CHUCK: First of all, yes. We were scheduled to play, I think maybe four concerts in Brazil and maybe some in Argentina. The band that we wanted to form was myself, was Bobby Keyes on saxophone; Jim Keltner on drums; we were trying to get Darryl Jones on bass and Waddy Wachtel as a possible guitar player. You're exactly right. We were discussing this band, we were making phone calls and we had almost all agreements made. As a matter of fact, I forgot someone. We're also talking to Bernard Fowler to help sing songs with us. But we're making the phone calls and just about that time all of us got the requested call from The Rolling Stones, to be reading for the rehearsals. So, then we had to postpone and to rethink of the possibility to come to the South America. Hopefully one day we'll be able to put either that band or perhaps a different band together to come and play. I would very much like to do that, especially with someone like myself and Bobby.

SUNRISE: So we hope that you gonna be able to come to South America, to Brazil and play as many gigs as possible with your band, because we have a major appreciation for your work. We have been able to see you playing with Eric Clapton, mainly when you come to the solo part of Old Love in the Unplugged tape and you do that wonderful and unforgettable solo, amazing Eric Clapton...

CHUCK: You are very, very kind. Thank you. It's a honor be speaking to your listeners and also an honor to be able to talk about something other than The Rolling Stones! I really appreciate that. But you had asked also about any projects for albums, that I might be working on. I can only tell you that right now I have finished a album of Christmas Music. It's on the Capricorn Records label and it will be released in September. It's call WHAT'S IN THAT BAG and I'm very pleased about recording and I enjoyed in making it very much.

SUNRISE: Would you mind telling us a little bit more about this album and the people you were worked with?

CHUCK: OK. To begin with, the music is sometimes traditional music songs, but there is also music that I have written, music that is written by friends of mine; are there a total of thirteen songs on the album. Some of the music is solo piano, some of the music is a sort of jazz trio; some of it is with a big band, with horns and many musicians; some of it's vocal music singing and some of them is instrumental music. So there is a combination of many different things on the record. Some of the musicians are people like David Hood and Roger Howkins. Roger Howkins is a wonderful drummer that has played many records, with people like Aretha Franklin, people like Wilson Picket; Traffic; Steve Winwood. There's also Bobby Keyes playing on a song. There's a song where Lisa Fisher sings a duet with me...

SUNRISE: So, it must to be wonderful!

CHUCK: I can only say that it was wonderful to make the record and I hope people enjoy it.

SUNRISE: As soon as we get it here, it's gonna be played right here in our "Sunrise Show", for our listeners in Sao Paulo. Now, we would like to know how was the thrill of playing in Rio de Janeiro?

CHUCK: Absolutely wonderful. We had a very, very special night in Rio with Bob Dylan sitting in with us. You know, sometimes we get on the stage and everything just feels comfortable, everything feels right, and everyone works together. And I think yesterday was that kind of concert. A very special concert.

SUNRISE: We seen that you had had a very good time with Ron Wood playing keyboard with you and then at the moment that Keith Richards finishes the solo of Honk Tonk Women. We were able to see that in a very close camera approach. So, it was very easy for us to understand people were having a wonderful time.

CHUCK: Yes, we were. We always have a wonderful time when we play music. It's a joy to be able to play music and especially in a wonderful place like Rio and of course, tomorrow night in Sao Paulo!

SUNRISE: Oh yes ... and we are gonna be there! We would like to know how does it feel to being considered as a Rolling Stone, cause you know, the people in Brazil are very familiarized already with the piano man; with the man who does charge the keyboards and for us, we understand you are a member of the band.

CHUCK: Of course, it's a great honor to work with these people: Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie. There are all wonderful people and I'm grateful for the opportunity to be able to make music with them. You know, The Rolling Stones are four people. I have been with them band since 1982. So, I must feel very strongly and I enjoy my role with the band. But it's also important for me, as a musician, to be able, in my career, to play with the others. And to that regard I have been fortunate to work with people like Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, my band Sea Level, and others. So, I think for me, I live in a perfect world. I get to play with the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world and I also get to play with many others incredible musicians. I feel like I'm the most blessed musician in the world!

SUNRISE: You said that you took a little while until you jumped to rock'n'roll. Would you mind telling us a little bit about how did a piano player that started with the influences of your mama and actually decided to go for the rock'n'roll?

CHUCK: Well, I think it came as an evolution. Perhaps because I did learn from my mother, music is always very, very important to me. Either listening to her playing, listening to the records that she and my father would play. But also the music that came from my part of the world, in the South, in America. We listened to many different kinds of music, specially R&B music; blues; music that comes from New Orleans is very important; gospel music is very important. But also as a young child, when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, the British invasion was very important. We listened to the Beatles, we listened to The Rolling Stones (laugh)... And the interesting is that, when I had my first band (I was 13 years old, and we used to play every Friday night at YMCA), a lot of sounds that we played were Beatles or The Rolling Stones. At that time, I was playing guitar (I would play mostly guitar and a little bit keyboards) with our rock'n'roll band, called "The Mizfits". We played songs like "The last time"; "Satisfaction" and it's very interesting to think that back in those days, in the early 60's, when I was learning that music, never in my wild strings, did I think that I would be playing that same music one day with the people that grew it and originally recorded it.

SUNRISE: Would you please send a message to the listeners of "Sunrise" about the environment?

CHUCK: Hello. This is Chuck Leavell talking. I'm the pianist to The Rolling Stones and it's a pleasure and an honor to be speaking to the Eldorado Radio Station, and specially for the "Sunrise" . I wish all of you the very, very best. I also wish to say to you that I hope each and everyone of you will pay close attention to the importance of our forestland in South America, in North America, in Russia, in China and in everywhere in the world. Please, pay close attention to the wonderful forest that give us so many beautiful things. Thank you all very much.

SUNRISE: Thank you Mr. Leavell. We thank you from the very bottom of our hearts.  

Thanks to;
Chuck Leavell
Rose de Oliveira, that agreed in putting this interview on the Internet
Maria Lucia Bueno, the Chuck's Brazilian fan, that made the contacts and helped to write down this page.
Jair Motta, who sent the interview to me.