Chuck Leavell Remains the Calm Center of the Rolling StonesOne of the greatest pianists in rock ’n’ roll history divides his energy between music and farmingChuck Leavell, photographed in Chicago, June 20. Photo: Lucy Hewett for The Wall Street Journal
By Alan Paul
Aug. 9, 2019
Chuck Leavell is the calm in the eye of the Rolling Stones’ crossfire hurricane. Throughout the band’s current 17-show “No Filter” tour of American stadiums, you’ll find the keyboardist center-stage, within eyeshot of every member of the 11-person group. He’s the guy they look toward to steady the ship if they feel a song wobbling or need a reminder or a cue.
While the 76-year-old Mick Jagger rooster-struts across the giant stage, showing no signs of his recent heart surgery, Keith Richards and Ron Wood peel off the loud, raunchy guitar riffs that have defined the band’s music for 55 years, and Charlie Watts drums out the beat. Mr. Leavell sits behind an electric piano, grinning through his white beard. He says that he came by his current role of music director for arguably the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band quite organically.
“I took copious notes during rehearsals for the 1989 ‘Steel Wheels’ tour and continued to document every time we played,” Mr. Leavell says. “I ended up with two encyclopedic books of notes and chord charts, which made me the go-to guy for questions like, ‘What’s the bridge again?’ Music director became an official title about five years ago, but it’s been a de facto role for a long time.”
On tour, Mr. Leavell arrives at the venue as early as noon to get some practice time on his own. Within a few hours, the entire band arrives, and they play a soundcheck that doubles as a rehearsal—usually emphasizing a song chosen for each performance from an online fan vote of four songs, picked by Mr. Leavell with approval from Mr. Jagger. “About 60% of the set is consistent on the tour,” says Mr. Leavell. “We focus on the other 40% at soundcheck.”
The morning after a show, on off days, before the band boards a private charter to its next destination, Mr. Leavell starts working on the next concert’s set list. He checks his database to see what the Stones played on their last visit to a city, no matter how long it has been, and tries to work in some curveballs. The songs that fans vote on are all numbers the band has prepared in rehearsal.
“We do roughly three weeks of rehearsal before every tour, running through about 20 songs a day,” says Mr. Leavell. “We mostly work on songs we don’t play every night, but people are sometimes surprised to hear that we also rehearse tunes like ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ or ‘Miss You,’ but it’s not because anyone needs to learn them. It’s an exercise very much like what athletes do on game day; a quarterback doesn’t only practice throws that need work. It’s a chance to listen to each other, remember arrangements and build a good pool of songs we can pull from.”
The heart of the band, of course, is Mick and Keith, “the Glimmer Twins” who have written the vast majority of the Stones’ classic catalog. Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards have had their famous feuds over the years, but Mr. Leavell says that on the current tour, they are behaving like the old school chums they are. “Mick and Keith are getting along famously, and it’s so cool to watch all the little smiles and glances between them,” he says. “At this stage of the band’s career, I think there’s a recognition that this is a precious opportunity, and everyone wants to make the most of it and have fun. There’s a strong sense of brotherhood, which is just beautiful to watch and be a part of.”
Though you won’t hear a lot of keyboard solos at a Stones show, Mr. Leavell is one of the greatest pianists in rock ’n’ roll history—best illustrated by his masterful work on the Allman Brothers Band’s joyous instrumental “Jessica.” Mr. Leavell, 67, grew up in Alabama and learned to play piano mostly from his mother, who taught him an early lesson: The best music engages the heart as well as the head, and you have to learn to play your feelings.
“When I was 5 or 6, my mother would sit beside me and ask what it would sound like if there was a big thunderstorm outside,” Mr. Leavell recalls. “I’d rumble down the low end of the keys, then do some lightning strikes on the right hand, and she’d say, ‘What would it sound like if you hit a home run?’ Because of that, music has always been more about expressing emotions and trying to paint pictures than worrying about chords and notes. Thanks, Mom!”
At 17, Mr. Leavell moved to Macon, Ga., where Capricorn Records was building a regional musical hub based around the Allman Brothers Band. He toured and recorded with several artists before working on two landmark 1973 albums: Gregg Allman’s solo debut “Laid Back” and the Allman Brothers’ “Brothers and Sisters.” Featuring the classics “Jessica” and “Ramblin’ Man,” the latter album became the Allman Brothers’ biggest hit, even as they struggled to move on after the death of two founding members, including Duane Allman. No one knew how the guitarist could be replaced; Mr. Leavell provided the counterintuitive answer, helping buoy a group that was reeling emotionally.
By 1981, disco and punk were making life difficult for roots rockers, and Mr. Leavell was playing small gigs and struggling to get by. His wife, Rose Lane, who now works on the Stones’ backstage team, had inherited 1,100 acres of Georgia farmland from her grandmother, and Mr. Leavell was ready to pause his musical career and become a full-time farmer.
“I said, ‘This ain’t really working. I want to learn more about what’s happening with this land.’ She finally said, ‘I know it’s difficult. But guess what? The Rolling Stones called today,’” Mr. Leavell recalls. “I was elated to get the gig,” but after his first tour with the Stones, “there was a lengthy gap before we started recording, during which I started learning about forestry, land use and wildlife management. That started out of necessity, but it turned into a passion.”
Ever since, the pianist has divided his energy between music and farming. Besides the Stones, he has recorded or toured with Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, the Black Crowes, John Mayer, George Harrison and many others. Last year, Mr. Leavell released an album, “Chuck Gets Big,” with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. He has also become a tree farmer of renown—he and his wife co-manage Charlane Plantation in Bullard, Ga.—and an outspoken advocate for environmentally friendly forestry, writing four books, co-founding the Mother Nature Network (an online hub for environmental news) and filming several episodes of the PBS series “America’s Forests With Chuck Leavell.”
He says that his message of responsible forestry is harder to get across in such polarized times, when some call for clear-cutting forests and others decry any harvesting. “When people scream about killing trees, I ask about their house—usually made of wood—and their furniture and their books. All wonderful things made from trees, and we don’t have to rape and pillage the forests to get them.” Mr. Leavell pauses, then adds, “Pianos are also made from trees.”