Chuck Leavell Holds the Keys to the Rolling Stones' Kingdom

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Goldenvoice
Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Chuck Leavell and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones perform during Desert Trip at the Empire Polo Club on October 14, 2016, in Indio, California.

The band's keyboard player for the last 34 years doesn't mind when Keith Richards reminds him "the Stones are a guitar band" -- he's still got the boogie-woogie & "diamond tiaras" to add to the mix.

Chuck Leavell, the Rolling Stones’ keyboard player and musical director of several decades, kept running into fellow fitness buff Paul McCartney in the gym at their hotel back in L.A. during the Desert Trip festivals. It would seem that the seemingly mild-mannered ex-Beatle actually enjoys a rivalry with the Stones, even when it comes to keeping an eye on their auxiliary players.

“He would say, ‘Yeah, I’ll be at your show -- no pressure there,’ which was a nice little quip,” Leavell tells Billboard. “And then I saw him after both sets were done, had a nice chat with him, and he said, ‘Yeah, man, I really dug the overhead shots they did of you on the keyboards. I could see all your mistakes!’”

Not bloody likely, as the Brits -- Leavell included -- might say. Even if he hadn’t been an unofficial member of the Stones since their 1982 tour -- which now gives him a slightly longer tenure than Bill Wyman ever had -- Leavell doesn’t get on for this and some other superstar rockers’ big tours because he’s likely to muff it up in front of Macca. The Southern-bred pianist, who first made his name as a member of the Allman Brothers Band in the early '70s, has long been one of rock’s most accomplished sidemen. He spent much of 2016 backing up David Gilmour on tour before rejoining the Stones for a tour of Latin America, a blues album and a carefully Beatle-scrutinized trip to the desert.

“There was definitely a friendly competition going on between all these bands, there’s no doubt about it,” says Leavell, who cites the Stones doing a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together” the first weekend as both a nod and possible challenge to McCartney, “who gave a nice fist-pump when he heard us start the song. And he kind of returned the tip of the hat by doing ‘I Wanna Be Your Man,’ which you know was originally written for and recorded by the Stones, which we’ve done maybe three times in our history.”

If Leavell says the Stones have done a song a certain number of times, you can be assured he won’t be too far off the mark. He’s the on- and sometimes off-stage brain trust of the band, keeping things in his head that the principals are free to forget about. If the Stones’ production were a movie set, he might be both director and script girl, as Leavell gives cues, keeps track of arrangements and even instigates set lists.

As far as being musical director, “I think I fulfill some of those duties, no doubt,” he says. “When people ask me, I say, well, to me, the musical directors are Mick and Keith. But starting with the Steel Wheels tour [in 1989], I began to take copious notes during every rehearsal we would do. And if there was a song that required a chord chart, I would chart that out, always by hand, and save it, and if we had any changes in the arrangement, I would note that. If we decided that it would benefit the song to play faster or slower, I’d get the tempo for it. And I began to compile and save all of these rehearsal sheets. So consequently now I have these two encyclopedic books of not every Stones song, but the majority of them, so they serve as a great reference. That led to me becoming the go-to guy when any of the band members have trouble remembering the arrangement, or did we do a double-chorus here, or did we extend the solo from the record... And onstage, counting off a lot of the songs, and serving as a visual focal point in case anybody is not sure, I can give hand signals or nods. So I don’t mind the term. And I’ve been in the band for 34 years, so it’s not a bad thing to have it.”

He can tick off a list of favorite Stones shows -- from the high-profile, low-capacity club gigs they did on the Stripped and 40 Licks tours to last year’s one-time-only Sticky Fingers show at a Hollywood theater to the recent free show in Cuba for untold hundreds of thousands. His real favorites, though, are the extremely private shows that take place on rented soundstages, with no audience.

“People ask me, what’s the most enjoyable experience with the Rolling Stones? It’s the rehearsals, because you do get to go over a lot of songs that are likely not to make it onstage for one reason or another. Some artists like Bruce Springsteen will get up there for four and a half hours and beat it. We don’t do that, but we do a good 2:10, 2:20. And that’s a lot of material. But it would take four, five, six hours to please everybody and do all the songs that have been in rehearsal. But I love fooling around in rehearsal, and in the past we’ve worked up a lot of fun covers that make it in, like ‘Love Train’ and ‘Can’t Turn You Loose.’

“It’s one of my duties to draft the set lists and put them together and discuss it with the other principles. A lot of the hard-core fans are gonna say, ‘Man, it would be great if you never played “Brown Sugar,” “Start Me Up” or “Satisfaction” again. We’d like to hear “Dandelion.”’ But you have to remember, the vast majority of the audience is probably going to be comprised of people coming for the first or second time, so it’s important to do the icon songs. The challenge becomes, how much time do you have to put in stuff that is fun and unusual? In the last few years songs like ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ have come in, and ‘She’s a Rainbow’ and ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ have made it occasionally. You know, I have a fan’s perspective too. And I go [online] and read the songs the fans want to hear.”

The role of the piano in a Stones’ set is not a primary one -- even if “Honky Tonk Women” does have a keyboard solo live where no part existed on record. If Leavell is famous for one recording, it’s the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica,” and the Stones aren’t about to allow him that kind of stretch-out time. But he’s hardly resentful.

“I’m often reminded by Keith Richards that this is a guitar band,” he laughs. “But the piano does play a very important role in the music. There are solos in ‘Angie’ and ‘Let It Bleed’ whenever we do those, and there’s always rock 'n' roll piano in songs like ‘Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘You Got Me Rocking.’ [Piano predecessor] Ian Stewart always used to say, ‘Don’t forget the diamond tiaras.’ What he meant was the little high, sprinkly bits that you put the fairy dust on up in the upper range of the piano in those types of songs. And that of course goes back to Chuck Berry and Johnny Johnson.

“I always tip the hat to the predecessors: Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston, Jack Nitzsche, Ian McLagan and Ian Stewart. Recently, I’m happy to say that I was put into the Boogie Woogie Piano Hall of Fame. Stu introduced me into that genre, and the songs you hear him playing on through the years on the records, that’s really what he’s doing, adding the boogie-woogie style. So when Stu passed on, I know Keith in particular looked to me because I had studied that with Stu. But when you look at what Nicky Hopkins contributed too, man, I always call him the motif meister, because of the lovely parts he would come up with for songs like ‘Angie’ or ‘She’s a Rainbow.’ When I play those songs, I’m definitely covering Nicky.”

Leavell is all over the Stones’ upcoming blues album, Blue & Lonesome. He hardly had to be dragged kicking and screaming into that: Leavell recently released his own solo blues album, Back to the Woods, which he recorded as a corrective to the idea that the genre is primarily guitar-based. He didn’t actually join the band in the studio though.

“The band got together to explore some new material, and I had other duties at the time. During that process of experiment with what was supposed to be new music came 12 or 13 blues covers. After the Latin American tour, Mick and Keith both came to me and said, ‘We wish you’d been there, but we still want you on there.’ So I went to New Orleans with Don Was and did my overdubs there. All the sounds they did in the initial recordings were very authentic blues sounds, done in character, and the same applied to me doing everything on a really nice upright piano -- not a grand, but one that had some character to it and fit the bill. And I think this is something that hard-cores are going to really enjoy. It’s full-circle, isn’t it? The goal the Rolling Stones had from the very beginning was to be the best blues band they could be in London, then England, then Europe, before they started writing songs and that changed everything.”

The Stones’ tour is one of only two huge ones Leavell did this year. “Then just before the Latin American tour earlier this year, I see a message from my website guestbook, and it says, ‘Hey, Chuck, David Gilmour here. Honest!’ And it gave me his contact info, and I thought, aw, this is a joke” -- even though they’d worked together on an MTV special in 1984.

“It was so refreshing for me, because my brain needed the challenge of some new information. There was a lot of homework. David’s music is complex and not just 1/4/5 in the rock 'n' roll chord book. The tour itself was absolutely a dream, because David wanted to do venues that would not just be the standard arena or stadium. So consequently we played Pompeii, the Roman amphitheater where the Pink Floyd concert film was done in ’73 -- this time with an audience. It will be made into a DVD and released I think in the spring. And then the rest of the venues throughout the European tour were Roman amphitheaters, castles and chateaus. The mantra after a while was ‘another day, another castle.’”

On top of all this, Leavell has a moonlighting gig -- or day job, depending on how you look at it -- as a well-known environmentalist, running the Mother Nature Network since the site opened its virtual doors in 2009. “We now employ almost 30 eco-journalists, and do 80-85 percent of our own content. We’re now getting visits of upwards of 6 million uniques a month and over 20 million page views, and I’m happy to say it’s become the go-to resource for environmental news, information and education for everyone from Joe Blow to academics.”

He’s also partway through shooting a pilot for a proposed public television series, America’s Forests With Chuck Leavell. His fascination with forestry comes not just from owning a plantation in Georgia with his wife of 43 years, Rose, but the wood that encases the organic instruments he most favors: Leavell is very much the guy to put the boards back in keyboards.


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