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Music

Chuck Leavell: Rock and roll’s secret weapon

@TylerGolsen

Rock and roll history is littered with ace session musicians and hired guns who never stepped into the spotlight. Nicky Hopkins has almost all of the instantly recognisable piano lines in nearly every classic Rolling Stones song, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who recognised his face. Stars as diverse as Billy Preston, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and even Marvin Gaye cut their teeth as anonymous backing players before stepping to the front of the stage, but many highly-talented musicians never make the transition to stardom.

That’s what happened to Chuck Leavell, the southern piano player who quietly left a major mark on the history of rock and roll music. With a friendly disposition and an easy-going attitude, Leavell had very little in the way of ego or vanity. Instead, he preferred to stay in the background, bolstering some of rock’s greatest tracks without so much of a call out or highlight reel. Leavell was only known to those who scoured the liner notes and songwriting credits, but to the people who religiously pored over those names, Leavell was someone who kept coming up again and again.

Growing up in the vibrant and traditional city of Birmingham, Alabama, Leavell was a self-taught musician who started his professional music career at a young age. But Birmingham had limited opportunities for someone as serious about music as Leavell, and based on a tip from producer Paul Hornsby, Leavell moved to Macon, Georgia to work as a studio musician at Capricorn Records. It was the same city and record label that was home to the Allman Brothers Band, but Leavell instead played sessions with the likes of Charlie Daniels and Mashall Tucker.

Thanks to his session work, Leavell hooked up with another master of boogie-woogie piano, Dr. John. It didn’t take long for Gregg Allman to notice this hot new keyboard player hanging around Georgia. Since Allman was most comfortable behind the organ, Leavell came in to flesh out Allman’s 1973 solo album Laid Back with acoustic and electric piano. The Allman Brothers Band were still reeling from the death of guitarist Duane Allman, and in late 1972, bassist Berry Oakley died in a similar fashion to Allman. It was decided that the band needed a fresh start, one that didn’t include replacing Allman on lead guitar.

In his place, Dickey Betts became the band’s sole lead guitar player, and Leavell was brought in to be a lead player all his own. The new focus on piano-driven tracks was immediately evident on songs like ‘Ramblin’ Man’ and ‘Jessica’, the latter of which was arranged with major contributions from Leavell. The musician contributed to every song that eventually made up Brothers and Sisters, the band’s critical and commercial peak, and he was fully integrated into the group as a full-time Allman Brother.

The success of Brothers and Sisters lead to major changes for the band: they were now playing stadiums, making hundreds of thousands of dollars on tour, and were able to visit Europe for the first time. Drug use was becoming rampant, and the strong core of the band began to erode as members of their entourage slowly faded. The familial Allman Brothers of the early 1960s no longer existed, and soon Gregg Allman found himself separated from the band, living in Los Angeles with singer/actress Cher while the rest of the band stayed in Georgia.

The follow-up to Brothers and Sisters was 1975’s Win, Lose, or Draw, which showed off the band’s disfunction. It didn’t take long for the Allman Brothers to fully implode, and in the aftermath of the breakup, Leavell formed his own band with drummer Jaimoe and Lamar Williams. Sea Level was more indebted to jazz than southern rock, and although the band toured without pause for nearly the entire latter half of the 1970s, they never saw the same level of success that the Allman Brothers Band had.

Leavell declined to rejoin the Allman Brothers when they reformed in 1978, but just two years later, Sea Level came to an end. Less than a year after the final Sea Level album, Leavell received an invitation to jam with The Rolling Stones, who were looking to add a new keyboard player to their live lineup. The job eventually went to former Faces member Ian McLagen, but Leavell left a positive impression on the Stones. When McLagen declined to return for the band’s 1982 tour, Leavell landed the job, which he continues to hold down to this day.

The 1980s proved to be a dysfunctional time for the Stones, with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards engaged in what Richards referred to as “World War III”. During the periods of strife and inactivity, Leavell restarted his lucrative session work, backing up Aretha Franklin on her rendition of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ from her 1986 album Aretha and taking part in Chuck Berry’s 1986 concerts that eventually became the concert film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. The Stones reformed in the late ’80s, but Leavell himself was on a roll, opting to pull double duty with and without the band.

Just before the launch of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Steel Wheels Tour’, Leavell contributed keyboards to The Black Crowes debut LP Shake Your Money Maker. Leavell also befriended Eric Clapton and George Harrison in the early ’90s, leading Leavell to be tapped for Harrison’s final series of concerts during his lifetime: a short 12-stop tour of Japan. Clapton also asked Leavell to appear on his 1992 Unplugged album, which subsequently became Clapton’s highest-selling album of his career.

These days, Leavell has continued his tenure with The Rolling Stones while fitting in session work and guest appearances for the likes of John Mayer and David Gilmour. Leavell has also continued to release solo albums and embark on tours under his own name, often paying tribute to classic blues players who inspired him in his youth. For someone with such a low profile, Chuck Leavell has left a remarkable lasting legacy within the history of rock and roll, including hit songs, record-breaking tours, and number one albums. In fact, if you look carefully, you might just find Leavell playing on some of your favourite works from the past and present.