Rolling Stone & Tree Farmer
By James Calemine
When Birmingham, Alabama, native Chuck Leavell was 13 he attended a Ray Charles concert and his life changed. Over the last 40 years he’s played with Aretha Franklin, Albert Collins, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers Band, The Black Crowes, Widespread Panic, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Buddy Guy, Billy Joe Shaver, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Randall Bramblett, Government Mule, The Marshall Tucker Band, Colonel Bruce Hampton, Dr. John, Lee Ann Womack, Tinsley Ellis and many others.
At 15, Leavell moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he played on several records including Freddy North’s soul classic Don’t Take Her, She’s All I Got. In 1969, Leavell moved to Macon, Georgia, where Phil Walden recently opened Capricorn Records and studio. In Macon, Leavell joined James Taylor’s brother, Alex, and played on his album Dinnertime.
Soon, Leavell spent six months on the road with Dr. John where Leavell later said he earned his “college education”. After the tragic death of Duane Allman and prior to the sad death of bassist Berry Oakley, Leavell joined The Allman Brothers Band in time to record and play a vital role in the classic Brothers and Sisters album, which went to #1 on the charts. Several years later, when the Allman Brothers broke up, Leavell formed a jazz-blues-rock band called Sea Level with Allman Brothers drummer Jaimoe Johanson. Sea Level recorded five formidable albums and toured to critical acclaim.
In 1982, Leavell was invited to play with the Rolling Stones. Since then Leavell has remained the Stones' keyboardist. Stones guitarist Keith Richards said this about Leavell: “Without the continuity that Chuck brings to us The Stones would not be The Stones.” It appears Leavell’s history and experience with southern music contributed a positive element to the Stones who started out as blues enthusiasts, but gradually drifted from the reservoir with the last few albums. Without Leavell, The Stones may have never visited the musical southland again.
In Leavell’s 2004 autobiography, Between Rock and A Home Place, he writes his indelible story about his music career. He recounts musical experiences, tree farming and family moments as the common threads that weave the story together. Present George Bush recognized Leavell’s work in tree farming on December 3, 2003, when Bush signed the bipartisan Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
Leavell’s 2001 book, Forever Green, details his work in tree farming, historical and environmental facts regarding American Forests. It proves a definitive book on the subject. Leavell’s 2,500 tree farm--located in Twiggs County, Georgia—Charlane Plantation—serves as his home. Forever Green has been reprinted several times as well as being translated into German. Leavell is a sought after speaker on the subject. In 1999, Charlane Plantation was recognized as National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the year.
In 2006, Leavell published his third book—a children’s book—titled The Tree Farmer, which has won several awards such as the “Media Award” from the National Arbor Day Foundation, and “Book of the Year” from the American Farm Bureau.
While out on tour with the Stones a few years ago, Mick Jagger asked Leavell to tone down his tree farming mission on interviews regarding the Stones. Later Jagger confessed, “Chuck is always talking about trees on tour…sometimes it drives me crazy; But his passion for foresting is undeniable, and he’s made some strong contributions to the environment through that passion.”
Leavell’s solo albums, What’s In That Bag?, Forever Blue: Solo Piano and Southscape serve as fine example of “southern jazz music”. The Rolling Stones record-breaking 2005-2007 “A Bigger Bang” tour counted as Leavell’s 25th anniversary of joining the Stones. After the Stones’ early fall tour of 2007, Leavell stayed in Europe to tour Europe and record some of the performances. The result, Live In Germany--Green Leaves & Blue Notes Tour 2007 ranks as a formidable 2 disc package where Leavell performs various original compositions such as “Coming Home”, “Tomato Jam”, “Blue Rose” and “Savannah”.
Leavell and band also performed stellar renditions of The Allman Brothers’ “Jessica”, Randall Bramblett’s “King Garland”, Professor Longhair’s “In The Wee Wee Hours”, Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind" and three classic Rolling Stones songs “Rip this Joint”, “Honky Tonk Women” and “Tumblin’ Dice”. In the liner notes, Leavell wrote about one of the recorded evenings: “It seemed that the stars lined up for all of us, and it turned into an extraordinary evening. All the musicians rose to the occasion, and I had one of the best experiences I’ve ever had for a live show.” This latest CD package contains recycled materials and includes high-grade photos of his band members and awesome photos of tree farms that represent the duality in his life.
For over 40 years, Chuck Leavell remains one of the most prolific southern musicians in the world. Look for 2008 Swampland news on Mr. Leavell in the near future…