Chuck Leavell: The Magic of Finger Painting
AAJ: You friend Dave Edmunds put you on stage with Ray Charles, B.B. King and several of your other heroes. Could you share a bit about that experience?
CL: How grateful am I to have worked with Dave! Dave was great to me. He brought me into so many interesting projectsthe Fabulous Thunderbirds who I wound up spending a couple of years with, those Legends of Rock shows that included Ray and those others, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and James Brown. And we did another show in Spainit was Legends of the Guitar, and we backed up B.B. King and Steve Cropper. So Dave was responsible for introducing me to a myriad of artists and musicians and I will be eternally grateful to him for that.
Dave is such a great artist himself, and we had fun together, whether I think back to recording sessions or the live shows we did. There was lots of laughing and a great light-hearted feeling. And I'll tell you something very interesting about DaveI think we were recording his record, Closer to the Flame (Capitol Records, 1990), and I walked into the studio one day and he was on the Hammond playing “Green Onions”! He got to the solo and played it perfectly, note-for-note. A Booker T solo! Man, it blew me out of the water because I'd never learned it note-for-note like that. I said, "Edmunds, you rascal, if you know it you've got to show it to me!" So he showed me the note-for-note solo of Booker T on “Green Onions.”
AAJ: I'm a big fan of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz program on NPR (National Public Radio). She's an amazing musician and conversationalist. She brought out the best in you musically for the show. Your version of “Georgia on My Mind” and Hank Williams' “I'm so Lonesome I could Cry” were really impressive. You sounded like you really enjoyed yourself. Could you share a bit about that experience?
CL: Well, first of all, for me to be on her show came as a suggestion from Greg Hughey, a friend of mine in Alabama. He actually wrote her a letter and then followed up with a phone call. Greg sent me an email with an MP3 attachment one day and said, "I want you to listen to this." It was a message from Marian McPartland on his answering machine saying, "I would love to have Chuck on the show, but how in the hell will I ever find him? He's always on tour." It just blew my mind that she would call back and say that she would love to have me. I couldn't believe she wanted a rock guy on her jazz show. I was so grateful, so I immediately followed up and we made it work with the scheduling. She was so gracious and wonderful and wanted to bring out the best in me. Quite frankly, I was intimidated to go on that show. I mean, here you have a jazz icon, Marian, who is such an incredible player with perfect pitch, and she hears around corners. But she went out of her way to make sure I was comfortable playing whatever I felt would be appropriate for the show. She was so encouraging and it was such a wonderful experience that when we finished the next day I sent her a dozen roses to her house. She was marvelous and that show has been re-run a number of times and I've got lots of nice comments.
AAJ: I wanted to mention that I thought the last chapter of your book What I Think You Should Hear was a great ideabasically four pages of music and musicians you recommend. You are a great admirer of Keith Jarrett. Have you ever had a chance to see him live or to meet him?
CL: No, but I love his music so much! To me, he's so courageous as a playerfor someone to be a prodigy and go through the classical repertoire at such a young age and then to delve into jazz and, against his own judgment, to play the Fender Rhodes because Miles was such an influence and Miles asked him to do that. And his courage on his solo performancesto go out there with a blank mind and start playing and invent music on the spot. I find him the most phenomenal musician I can think of. I revere him so highly, I just can't tell you! I must have nearly everything he's done, although he's so prolific I'm sure there must be one or two I've overlooked. I absolutely adore his music and his talent is so off the charts to me.
When you talk about musicians through the ageswhether it's Beethoven, or technical players like Chopin, Mozart, Art Tatum and Oscar PetersonI don't think you can mention any of those guys without mentioning Keith Jarrett. I just think he's that phenomenal and will stand through the eons of time to be one of the most amazing musicians ever.
AAJ: I thought Martin Scorsese did a fine job on the film Shine a Light. During the opening black-and-white scenes you are seen in your central role as musical navigator, but during the on-stage portion you only see Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie and the background singers. Why was that? Did the camera for the keyboards malfunction?
CL: Every film done on the Rolling Stones is ninety percent Mick Jagger. That's just the way they operate, and you know that going in. We all knew that there would be little of us on screen other than what incidental things might come up. You'd love to have more camera time, and I was pleased they did a remix. I'll give you a story on this. After the first cut, Scorsese and his team came to Rome when we were touring, and we rented a theater and went in and watched it. I'm sure all of us, myself included, were disappointed in some aspects of it. It's so much the principals, especially Mick, and very little of anything else in terms of the camera, and also the mix. It's like the rest of us just don't exist.
Chuck Leavell (second from right) with The Rolling Stones
And so I went to Mick and I said, "Listen, you haven't asked me, but here's my comments on the film and on the audio mix." I literally typed it out in a four page letter to him. All the comments were specific, from this song to that song, the camera angles, and especially the audio mix. I don't know whether it made any difference or not, but I can tell you that I was pleased that in the final cut at least the audio mix was much better balanced that what we heard in Rome, and I feel pretty good about that. As for the camera thing, it's like I saidevery film they've ever done has been that way. I think it's unfortunate because there's so much more to the Rolling Stones. It's not just mehow many shots of Bobby Keys do you see in that film, and how many shots of the horn players? They may get a total of three seconds of camera time in a two hour film.
AAJ: I think serious Stones fans were probably a little bit disappointed.
CL: I think it is so much deeper and more interesting than that but, you know, that's their way.
AAJ: I know Keith has said that the Stones are a guitar band. It's also a major musical enterprise with a fan base that has pretty clear expectations that must be respected when performing. I'm curious, though, when you guys are off somewhere rehearsing with no audience to please and egos more or less in check, are there times when they aren't the “Stones” and you all are simply musicians jamming the blues and relating to each other like you did when you were a kid back in Alabama?
CL: Oh, sure there are. Man, that goes on all the time, and I think there are also documented eventslisten to “Losing My Touch” on Forty Licks (Virgin, 2002). That's very unlike the Stones and very Keith like and it certainly gives me some good space to play. And when you listen to the Stripped (Virgin, 1995) record, that's another example of when they take the focus a little bit down from the principals and you hear a little more of a band sound, and even on Shine a Light (Interscope, 2008), when you listen to the audio soundtrack you can hear us there. Yeah, those moments happen.
But Mick has a certain concept of who the Rolling Stones are and who they aren't. And he sticks very close to that and he's never gonna change it, and it's always gonna be about him and Keith. Ronnie Wood has had some difficult times of late, and I saw something in the press recently where Mick said, "You know, we're going to tour with or without him." I understand that, but that gives you a little insight into who Mick thinks the Rolling Stones are and what he thinks the Rolling Stones are. And he's certainly not afraid to let people know that and make it clear that the Rolling Stones are basically Mick and Keith. They would say Charlie, and I would say Charlie too. But they have a commercial entity that, at least at the present moment, has four principal members, and that's what they want to keep things focused on.
>AAJ: One can understand why they wouldn't want to tamper with that kind of success. But the interesting thing, Chuck, is that you've had the contrast. Keith said they are a guitar band, and the Allman Brothers were the ultimate guitar band, but they heard your chops and they asked you to join the band and they turned their sound around for you, so you've seen every side. You've been with the most successful rock band of all time, but considering what the Allman Brothers Band did, I think that's also a huge compliment to your talent.
CL: Well, I appreciate that and you're right, and of course that was a completely different situation. And sometimes, quite frankly, I do lament the fact that I've not been able to have that type of influence with my role in the Stones. There are plenty of recordings laying around, and there are moments and there are also complete songs that were done and never released where I have a more prominent role. I would have loved to have had a stronger influence on the band musically, but it's their show and they're going to run it the way they choose.