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Music, Etc.: Chuck Leavell, Renaissance Man

Chuck Leavell talks about one rockin’ night in Germany, the genius of Ray Charles and what it’s like to have Clapton and Gilmour ask you to join their bands.

While perhaps not a household name, Chuck Leavell’s performances are deeply woven into the musical fabric of our times. His piano and keyboard work with the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, for whom he has also been the de facto musical director since 1982, has earned admiration from his musical peers as well as appreciative audiences around the world. His longstanding career began at the age of 13, when he experienced a concert by Ray Charles that would change him forever. His latest album, Chuck Gets Big (With the Frankfurt Radio Big Band), sees him re-creating some of the big band magic that inspired him all those years ago. Jacques Sonyieux spoke to Chuck about what it was like to capture a performance in a German castle alongside 17 other stellar musicians.

On juggling projects

I have always found it fascinating that there is an art to time management. If you are careful and sensible, you can arrange time to do many different things, and that’s what I try to do to keep all my projects going. This project started seven years ago: I was invited to play with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band in the Frankfurt area of Germany for a special concert. I accepted the invitation and chose to play a dozen songs. When I arrived in Frankfurt, the band had one rehearsal without me, one with me, and then the next day was the concert. A while after the performance, my engineer, Gerry Hansen, and I examined the files and they were so great that I said, “Let’s see if we can take the audience out of this. I think I would prefer this to sound like a studio record.” We did—and it worked. It took a couple of weeks to get everything mixed, but it all worked like a charm. I proposed the project to my label and they jumped right on it.

On stepping up his game

There were really no tricks on the recording; it was just an incredible night, an incredible moment for me to be playing with those guys. I can tell you this: When I walked into that rehearsal that first day, the day before the concert, my mind was blown. The band was so strong and all the players were so good. My first thought was, “Whoa, Chucky, you’ve got to up your ante, you’ve got to get in this game!” It did inspire me to stay on my toes and not fool around. I had to do them proud, so to speak. It was a bit of a jolt once I was hearing those charts and being in the middle of everyone playing that music. It was just so powerful and I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

On German hospitality

During the concert itself, we had a really wonderful audience. The setting was incredible; it was in this castle owned by an ancient German family. They were gracious enough to let us use the facility for the performance and we had a really good sound system. I think there were probably about 600 people there, and I had this fantastic German Steinway piano that was a joy to put my hands on. It was just like all the stars lined up that night, and that’s the way to work.

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On Ray Charles

When I was about 13, my sister had a date to go see Ray Charles in Tuscaloosa [Alabama], where we grew up. My parents had something going on that night and they didn’t want to just leave me alone, so they suggested to my sister that she let me tag along. And I was already playing music, but I had never seen anything so powerful as that in all my life—it just blew my mind. The band was amazing. You had Billy Preston playing a Hammond B3, and Ray gave him a special part in the show where he sang a song and was featured. Of course, you also had the Raelettes and Ray himself. The voice, the playing—I get chills just thinking about it. We already had the wonderful record Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in our house, and I had listened to it and really liked it. But from that moment on, Ray was my man. I began studying everything I could about him. His playing was superb, the voicings he used on the piano—everything was just so inspirational to me. The track on my record, “Georgia on My Mind,” was my small way of thanking Ray for giving us all that music.

On getting the call

It blows my mind when I get calls from people inviting me on their tours. I still have the cassette from the answering machine where Eric Clapton called me and he said, “Hey, this is Eric Clapton, calling from Hong Kong, wanting to know if Chuck might be interested in playing some shows at the Royal Albert Hall.” Man, I just about fell over; I couldn’t make that return call fast enough.

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David [Gilmour], that was another one that happened out of the blue. I played once with him in 1984 and many years went by. I think I saw him a few years later socially, but that was it. Well, one day my wife was checking the guest book of my website and told me, “There’s a guy here who says he’s David Gilmour.” So I had a look, and the message said, “Hey Chuck, David Gilmour here. Honest!” And he left a contact number. I thought, “Well, it might be a joke, but why not follow up?” Sure enough, it was him and he told me, “Man, I’ve been thinking about you; I want to change my band up some and if you are interested, come on!” So we did and I went on his tour!

Jacques Sonyieux is a devout explorer of recording studios and the artists who occasionally inhabit them. Please send any tips or feedback to Jacques at [email protected]