On an early May afternoon, Chuck Leavell was preparing to sound check at Eddie’s Attic, where that night he would play a benefit concert for Westchester Elementary School in Decatur, which his grandsons Miles and Rocco attend.
Leavell was helping the school raise funds for musical instruments and field trips to explore music and nature – two things that are embedded in his soul.
But his most visible gig the past 30-plus years has been perched behind Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood as the keyboardist for The Rolling Stones.
Leavell, 63, and the indefatigable crew behind some of classic rock’s most venerable tunes are back on the road playing U.S. stadiums for the first time since 2005-2007’s “A Bigger Bang” tour.
They’ll pull into Bobby Dodd Stadium at Georgia Tech for a show on June 9 – the band’s first Atlanta appearance since two stops at Philips Arena in 2005 and 2006 and a return to the 55,000-capacity “Ramblin’ Wreck,” which they played during 1989’s “Steel Wheels” run.
When he isn’t performing on cavernous stages from Sydney to Stockholm, Leavell and Rose Lynn, his wife since 1973, relish the serenity of Charlane Plantation, their 2,500-acre tree farm outside of Macon, and their newer retreat in Savannah.
With his soft smile, kind, crinkly eyes and impressive rock star hair (more on that later), Leavell happily interrupts his sound check – a day before heading west to begin rehearsals for the tour that launched May 24 – to discuss his tenure with “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band” and why it’s so cool sharing a stage with Jagger and Richards.
Q: It’s so interesting how you have one half of your life playing on some of the biggest stages in the world and then you come home to this peaceful farm.
A: It’s a great balance, it really is. You go on tour, whether its Stones or anyone else in big cities and big stages, there’s a lot of electric vibration going on and at the end of it I get to come to the peace and quiet of the woods… (The plantation) is a lot of work, but I love that work. It’s physical, helps keep you in shape, keeps your mind off things. In the evenings we take it easy and take the dogs out for a run and watch the deer and turkey and quail.
Q: Whenever we’ve talked, I always ask if you received the call from Mick that it was time to hit the road again. So when did this call come?
A: What happened was that starting in late 2012, the band celebrated its 50th anniversary, and we started late that year and did a couple of shows at the O2 Arena in London and did three shows in the Northeast. That went so well that the band said let’s continue on. In 2013 we toured the U.S. and in 2014 they said let’s look at Europe. So we went there and Asia and Australia and those were all very successful. During all of that they said, it’s feeling pretty good, let’s see if we can keep it going. So we’re coming back to some markets we didn’t do in 2013. We have Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, Nashville and Raleigh – five of the15 shows are in the South.
Q: Any reason why you’re playing Bobby Dodd?
A: It could be a number of reasons, and I’m not sure of the answer. But I can tell you that I do recall that show we played there in 1989 on the “Steel Wheels” tour, and I think it’s the perfect sized stadium. It’s not so gargantuan big that you lose people with 80,000 in the thing.
Q: How do you feel about stadiums versus arenas?
A: As Keith Richards says, when you’re doing the outdoor shows, God is in the band because you don’t know what the weather is going to do! So there is that factor. If it rains, it rains. The band plays no matter what, unless there are some dangerous conditions, of course. You keep your fingers crossed that the weather is in your favor.
Doing those larger venues, the sound has a place to go instead of staying closed in, so sometimes that works to your advantage. The vibe from playing outdoors with the fans, they tend to really, really love it and so do we. There’s more excitement I would say.
Q: Tell us something we don’t know about the Stones or would be surprised to know.
A: Here’s a tidbit about Charlie Watts: he’s such a great, great man. He’s so elegant. His clothes are tailor-made, his shoes are handmade. And he has this wonderful eye for art and is very well-versed in art. He has a collection of antique automobiles and…he’s never driven a car. Is that wild? He likes to run his hand over those leather seats. I just find it fascinating that the guy has never driven a car! And of course people know about Ronnie Wood’s art. He’s just a fantastic artist and extremely well known and celebrated.
Q: Is it still as fun for you now to be on the road?
A: God, yes. This falls under the category of I-can’t-believe-we-still-get-to-do-this! It’s a blessing, truly a blessing, and also that the fans want to come see it. The band loves getting up there and performing. We love the rehearsal time when we get to be together and go through the possibilities of material. We love the process of finally getting to the stage and seeing what the stage is going to feel like…it’s a joy, it’s such a joy. Of course the energy level, we have to make sure it’s there because the fans are coming, a lot of them from far, far away. As we know, just about any concert is not inexpensive these days so you better put it on, so that’s what we do.
One of the greatest things to me that we are still doing this is that you see three generations of fans coming and it’s a family affair. It’s marvelous. I love that about it.
Q: Do you enjoy the traveling?
A: My dad told me when I was very young that traveling is an education in itself and it is. And the other side is, it’s what you make it. If you want to stay in a hotel room you can do that. But Rose Lane and I like to get out, explore the culture, see the sights. It’s a lot of fun that we do get to travel together.
Q: When you’re not on tour, do you play every day?
A: A lot, but maybe not every day. When I have a tour coming up or a recording session, I’ll make myself sit behind a piano and do at least an hour, maybe two a day to make sure I have the strength. But I’m ready! I know these songs very well. I’m excited to explore the catalog once again.
Q: There’s been some talk about “Sticky Fingers” being played in its entirety on this tour.
A: (Smiles) It’s being discussed.
Q: If you had to pick a favorite Stones song to play live…
A: Oh man, there are so many great ones. But I usually say “Honky Tonk Women.” I remember where I was when I heard that record; I was in one of my first bands, it was a little trio and we were in Nashville living in a house. I was probably 15, and the guitar player came running in the house and said, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” And we said, “Got what?” “I was listening to the radio in the car and the new Stones song came on and I pulled over to the side of the road to listen to it and then I went straight to the record store and bought it!” So we put that 45 on and listened to it 100 times that day, just dissecting it. And the irony is that on the record there is no piano! But it’s kind of turned into a featured piece for me. The great thing about performing that song is you look out there (into the audience) and all of the women want to be that honky tonk woman. And all the guys want to be with the honky tonk gal. It’s just one of the most phenomenal things and joyous to see. It never fails. It’s always a winner.
Q: From your vantage point onstage, what’s it like watching Jagger move?
A: Mick is so magnetic as a performer, it’s phenomenal to me. It’s my job to watch him, obviously, but I can’t NOT watch him because he’s Mick Jagger. He works that crowd so well. If he wants you clapping your hands, if he wants you singing a chorus, you’re gonna be singing, and the next thing you know, all the problems go away and you’re having the time of your life and that’s a rare talent, but he certainly has it.
But it’s not just Mick up there. Keith is amazing. Every stroke of that guitar is done from every fiber of his being; he’s so passionate about it. Charlie is the envy of every other drummer in the world. He’s so steady, like the greatest foundation you could ever have. Ronnie is the catalyst. Multi-talented and he can play such a range of instruments and has such a great personality. I love that about Ronnie. And of course Darryl Jones on bass and Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer, the great singers who have been with us a long time. And of course it was very, very sad to lose Bobby Keys recently. He was there from the early ‘70s and contributed so much, not just to the Stones but to so many artists. He was my Southern brother in the band and we were very close.
I have to compliment Karl Denson who has come in and done a wonderful job and Tim Ries, who has been there for a long time playing sax and keys. It’s a family. We love each other. We’ve all been working together for a long, long time – 33 years for me now and I just can’t wait to get back together and do it again.
Q: It must be a very different scene backstage now than it was 33 years ago.
A: You know, I think the band has always been more focused than people might think. There is a discipline factor. The body of work wouldn’t be what it is if that weren’t true. Yeah, it’s fun, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. But it takes a lot of preparation and a lot of work and a lot of focus.
Q: And you get the feeling that all of the other guys still enjoy playing these songs as much as you do?
A: Oh yeah, oh yeah, they do. They don’t have to do this. But what do they want to do? They don’t want to sit at home and watch TV, do they? They want to get out and get the music to the people, Mick and Keith are still writing songs and who knows, there could possibly be another record up the road. It’s been lightly discussed but there’s no plan. We’re just excited about what’s in front of us right now. And then we’ll see what happens later in the year.
Q: How long do you see this going?
A: Keith always says we’re in uncharted territory. We don’t know! But as long as it’s working, we want to do it.
Q: It must be cool for you to be playing in Atlanta.
A: This is going to be an amazing night for me, no doubt about it. It’s been since ’06 that we played here, the two shows on the Atlanta tour in ‘05 and ‘06. It’s always just a big, big deal for me. It’s my backyard. My kids live here. I live two hours down the road. Georgia has been in my blood a long, long time. This is home and I can’t wait to come home and feel the love.
Q: Who in the band is jealous of your hair?
A: HA! Aren’t you sweet to say that. I did see somewhere on a blog ages ago, why did Chuck Leavell get the job with the Stones? Because he had decent hair.
Q: What’s the latest with the Mother Nature Network?
A: We launched in January of ’09 and we’ve gained a lot of experience, a lot of following since then. We’re getting upwards of 8 million on MNN.com, and to me that says that people are really concerned about our environmental challenges and are looking for answers. We change the website umpteenth times a day; we do 75-80 percent of our own content. We now own Tree Hugger.com as well and are looking to expand. It’s been a joyful journey for me.