Chuck Leavell, Georgia’s own Rolling Stone, at the Benz, with the Lads
By Bo Emerson, The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionTree farmer and rock ‘n’ roller joins historic tour, the first without Charlie Watts.
“Charlie Watts would never want to be the reason this band would stop, I can tell you that.”
Chuck Leavell is sitting in front of the windows at his Charlane Plantation home outside Macon as the dogs bark to be let in and out.
He is on a brief furlough from the No Filter Tour, which began its last leg in October after the sudden death of drummer Charlie Watts, the dapper, driving wheel behind the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. The tour arrives at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium Nov. 11.
As the de facto music director of the band during the last 40 years of touring, Leavell not only handled keyboard duties, he frequently took charge of the music on stage, as a sort of conductor.
In performance he kept in eye contact with Charlie, since any signal by the music director has to be telegraphed by the drummer. They had a unique relationship and the loss hits him hard. After getting the news, he said, “I had to hide my face several times at the airport.”
But the show goes on, with long-time collaborator Steve Jordan on drums. Jordan, who played on Keith Richards’ solo projects, had already been tapped for this leg of the tour, because of concerns about Watts’ health.
During a Zoom interview from his Twiggs County home, Leavell took time to talk about life after Charlie, about auditioning for the Stones and growing trees in middle Georgia.About Charlie Watts:
“We all are still pining and sad over the loss of Charlie. We knew that he was ill; we knew that he was not going to be able to make this tour, and he had already given Steve Jordan his blessing to do that. Actually we all expected a full recovery over time. So when the news came, I was in a car halfway to the airport to start rehearsals. I saw the email and it was just devastating. I had to hide my face several times in the airport, thinking of him and getting emotional. We miss him very much.”
“But you know Charlie Watts would never want to be the reason this band would stop, I can tell you that. We took a day or two to talk about Charlie and share some stories and grieve. And then carry on. And that’s what we’ve done. We honor Charlie, and celebrate him at every show.”About Steve Jordan:
“He’s been part of the Stones family, so he was definitely the logical choice. You know Steve is a fantastic drummer. He has a slightly more aggressive style of drumming. We’re adjusting to him, and he’s adjusting to us, but it’s really, really working out well. He studied, and he studied hard.”Taking the reins in 1989:
After a seven-year absence from the road, the Rolling Stones started practicing for the 1989 Steel Wheels tour.
“In 1982 every night was the same set. So I made the point: ‘Hey guys, you’ve got a deep well of material and we need to explore that. We need to bring some deep tracks into the set.’ And they all agreed, so I began taking these notes every time we would work up a song we hadn’t played in a long time, or the band hadn’t played in a long time. I would chart out the song by hand, make any notes if we changed the arrangement for any reason. Were there horns on it? What were the horn parts? Were there background vocals? What were they? And so forth. . . That has gone throughout my whole career, almost 40 years, with the band. So now I have these two encyclopedic notebooks with my handwritten notes in there. So we use that as a reference from time to time.”
Other band members rely on him during rehearsals: “Chuck knows the bridge? What was the key? Where’s the solo Chuck? I began to be the go-to guy for those issues. And then, it began to translate into the stage, especially when Charlie was alive.
“Hopefully I help to keep the train on the tracks. But look, this is the Rolling Stones, and you can expect a derailment every now and then.”Giving up on a music career:
In 1981 his band Sea Level had ended, his trio wasn’t getting any traction and at the same time, Chuck’s wife Rose Lane had inherited land from her family that Chuck wanted to turn into a tree farm. He was turning 30 the next year and ready to call it quits.
“I came home one afternoon and I just wanted to vent to my wife Rose Lane. And I said ‘Rosie, you know I’m never going to stop music but the phone’s not ringing for sessions, this little trio‘s not going anywhere, and I’m really interested in the land and what we’re doing, so maybe I should just focus on that.’
“She listened very intently and patiently and finally she said ‘Well Chuck, guess what? The Rolling Stones called you today.’”Down on the farm, risking his valuable fingers with a chain saw:
During this brief break in the tour Leavell repaired to his 4,000-acre tree farm, a setting that makes an appearance in the recent documentary, “Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man,” which is streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
“It’s so great to be out in the country. I took a nice ride around on my four-wheeler yesterday to check out all the territory.”
People ask me, ‘does Lloyds of London insure your hands?’ No man! You know, common sense insures my hands. I love the physical work. I’m never going to give that up.
“Hauling around a chainsaw and cutting wood and stacking wood is fantastic exercise. I’m going to do it. But I’m going to do it very carefully.”
About his environmental work (and a certain immortal guitarist):
“I think it’s about time we all start thinking about what kind of world we’re going to leave for Keith Richards.