The Rolling Stones’ longtime keyboard player comments on the legendary band and the excitement of upcoming concerts in an exclusive Spins on Music interview.
Lots of smiles, and everyone is in fantastic shape and looking forward to getting this in front of the fans.
He’s the fifth – and often overlooked – member of The Rolling Stones.
But as “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band” rehearses in Paris for its first major concerts in more than five years, keyboard legend Chuck Leavell is in the thick of the reunion hubbub, helping draw up set lists for the band’s four much-ballyhooed shows in London and New Jersey.
The Rolling Stones made a big media splash this week when they performed a “surprise” concert at a tiny 700-capacity nightclub in northern Paris, wowing fans in the intimate setting with their 75-minute “warm-up” show, according to Reuters and other news agencies. Although tied up in rehearsals, Leavell emailed me to say that the “gig went great, as all the media is reporting.” (Another one of those media reports here.)
For an astonishing three decades, Leavell has been the Stones’ keyboard player, bolstering the iconic music of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood.
Of course, the keyboard player’s jaw-dropping resume also includes a long stint with The Allman Brothers and work with such stars as Eric Clapton, George Harrison and The Black Crowes, not to mention highly regarded solo projects, studio session work and a recent affiliation with guitarist-singer John Mayer, who was forced to cancel his 2012 national tour with Leavell due to a granuloma on his vocal cords.
Earlier this year, Leavell released a new solo album, “Back to the Woods: A Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano,” won a lifetime achievement Grammy Award for his work with The Allman Brothers, and was named an honorary forest ranger for his conservation work as owner of a Georgia tree plantation. He’s also authored the book, “Growing a Better America.”
I recently interviewed Leavell while he was in Paris rehearsing for those upcoming shows with the Rolling Stones, following up on an earlier Q & A that I conducted with him prior to the canceled Mayer tour. Here are excerpts from those interviews:
Q: The Stones play four arena shows – Nov. 25 and 29 at London’s O2 Arena and Dec. 13 and 15 at Newark’s Prudential Center – as part of their long-anticipated 50th anniversary celebration. How excited are you to be part of this legendary live band again and what sort of preparations are involved?
A: It has been over five years now since we have played a show, so it is just great to be back together again running through all these wonderful tunes. We are in Paris rehearsing and it is going really well. Lots of smiles, and everyone is in fantastic shape and looking forward to getting this in front of the fans. We’ve had about two weeks’ rehearsal so far and have another couple of weeks before we get to production rehearsals.
Q: What are you hearing about the prospects for a full-fledged tour by the Stones?
A: No word on that at all for the moment. The focus is totally on these upcoming shows and no discussions of any further activity will take place until these are done. So we all have to wait and see.
Q: The impressive new Stones’ single, “Doom and Gloom,” will be included in a compilation with another new song. Were you part of the recording sessions?
A: Yes, I play on both the new tunes. My organ part is a bit buried in the mix on “Doom and Gloom,” which is a drag for me, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear it. I’m more prominent on the other tune we recorded, “One More Shot.” It has not been released yet, but will be on the compilation. Both were recorded in Paris the third week in August.
Q: You’ve been playing with the band for so many years. How do you describe your role and what makes being on stage with them such a treat?
A: Yeah, 30 years now. Hard to believe. My role has morphed through all those years and is now sort of unofficial or defacto musical director. I’ve kept meticulous notes through the years of all the rehearsals we’ve done, made charts of most all the songs, made note of all the tempos, have pretty much written the set lists for the last 18 years. I’ve been working on the draft set lists for the upcoming shows in the last few days, and we’ll start honing in on the presentation soon. For now, we’ve just been going through the “big list” and have touched on something like 60 to 70 songs. Of course, we’ll cull that down soon and get to a more reasonable number. But it is a really fun process to go through and we’ve all enjoyed it.
Q: Are there still any prospects for touring with John Mayer at some point?
A: John is a really good friend and, in my opinion, one of the true greats of the current generation. It was a real joy, honor and pleasure to work on (Mayer’s new album) “Born And Raised,” and as you know, we were supposed to tour behind it but his ongoing throat problem caused us to cancel. He’s undergoing a second treatment for the problem now, and I understand that so far, so good. I absolutely want to continue to work with him as long as he’ll have me. In the meantime since the cancellation of his tour, I’ve been able to focus on “Back To The Woods,” my (solo) blues record. I was able to book some really fun select shows, including this year’s Jazz Fest in New Orleans. All the shows I did went well, but that one was really special. When these Stones shows are done we’ll see where things are and I’ll assess what 2013 might bring. Whatever it is, I look forward to it.
Q: John Mayer brought you into New York’s Electric Lady Studios to help record “Born and Raised” with producer Don Was. What makes Mayer such a special musician in your view and how did those sessions fare?
A: John is astoundingly impressive in his guitar-playing and writing, and of course, as a vocalist as well. It felt great from the beginning and I wound up going back to New York four or five times over the course of the … year to record with him. We also had some incredible jams that went down. None of that made it on the record, but they were recorded. They were really varied and so much fun – some were straight blues things, some quite adventurous jazzy things, some where we all switched up instruments and just went nuts. I love that he likes to experiment that way. … (The new record) is very organic and close, intimate. The themes vary from love, self-searching, redemption, story-telling and more. I think it’s a great piece of work and I’m proud to be on it.
Photos courtesy of chuckleavell.com.