Check Out Chuck
Some musicians are so low profile that you hardly ever realise their influence. They rarely hog the limelight and, in fact, are most often overshadowed by their band-mates who are way more famous. How many of us know of Chuck Leavell? Even if someone told us that Leavell, 59, is an American pianist and keyboardist who has played with the likes of Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers, we’d probably go, “Oh, yet another sessions musician; there are so many.” But if I were to tell you that Chuck Leavell is actually a part of The Rolling Stones and has been touring with the band for years, would that make him any more familiar?
Probably no. Leavell joined the Stones in the early 1980s, after a stint with The Allman Brothers, as a touring member and a second keyboardist to the main man, Ian Stewart. After Stewart died, Leavell became the primary guy who tweaks the keyboards when the Stones go on tour and, indeed, he’s also been credited with being the band’s musical director, planning and drawing up (with Mick Jagger), the nightly playlists for the famous band’s gigs. On Leavell’s website, Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards is quoted as saying: “Without the continuity that Chuck brings to us, the Stones would not be the Stones.”
Yet, it’s not the stuff that Leavell plays with the Stones that makes him a great musician. It’s the other stuff that he does that makes him one of the most influential musicians of his times. On a recent day of uncharacteristically heavy rains in Delhi, stuck in traffic for hours, I reached out for what you might say was the musical equivalent of comfort food—a podcast of a more than three-hour-long concert by one of my all-time favourite bands, Widespread Panic. It was not a recent concert. It dated back to 2003 and was recorded over two sets at Atlanta in the American band’s native state of Georgia.
That year was not one of the best for the band. Widespread Panic had lost their lead guitarist with superlative skills, Michael Houser, the year before and were still to get back their groove in the lead department but as soon as I began hearing the familiar opening notes of the first set’s first song, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, I knew something was going on: there was someone big on the piano. I checked the shownotes and, sure enough, it was Leavell. That 2003 show, which has many of the frenetically touring band’s famous tunes (Climb to Safety, Arleen, Space Wrangler, Mercy, Barstools and Dreamers….) is excellent and a lot of credit for that goes to two guests that Panic decided to invite to the party—besides Leavell on the keyboard, there is Derek Trucks, the guitar genius. Needless to state, my commute through Delhi’s rain-choked roads went down considerably better than what it could have. I’d recommend downloading that entire podcast and keeping it handy. Just in case.
Spurred by Leavell’s appearance in that great Panic gig, I went about listening to the man’s other appearances. First, I tried to find some of his solo work—he has four albums, including a solo piano work from 2001 called Forever Blue. But although Leavell’s roots are that of a blues pianist, it is his rock collaborations that I find myself drawn to. And, strangely enough, you may discover that you always had him in your record or CD collection but you probably never realised that. Heard The Black Crowes 1990 gem, Shake Your Money Maker? (I’ll never forget how I picked up that CD from a discount bin in Bombay in the mid-1990s!). Well, the chap playing the piano on it is none other than Leavell.
Look through your collection, and you’ll find Leavell. Got Clapton’s 1992 album, Unplugged? Heard the piano? Yes, it’s Leavell. He’s on many more albums by other bands: The Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters, Gov’t Mule’s Live With a Little Help From Our Friends and so on. And, if you don’t have any of these, you’ll surely have heard him on Voodoo Lounge, Stripped, No Security, Live Licks, A Bigger Band, or 2008’s Shine A Light. Yes, you guessed right, they’re all Rolling Stones albums.