Allman Brothers Band: Leavell Headed Allman

PIANIST CHUCK Leavell is the least heralded member of the Allman Brothers Band, a musician first and a talker second.

The fact that he hides behind a grand piano on stage has obscured him from the public who generally go along to the concerts to savour the guitar lines of Richard Betts or Gregg Allman’s haunting presence anyway.

His arrival in the band was equally unheralded. He played in the studio with them, accepted an invitation to tour as well and is now a regular member.

At first it wasn’t a question of his “joining” the Brothers, just a case of his helping them out.

Now of course, he’s a fully fledged member but his personality seems to be overshadowed by everyone else in the group.

Also, his arrival in the band – in November 1972 – occurred just two weeks before Berry Oakley was killed.

The publicity surrounding this pushed Leavell’s contribution to the Allmans even further into the background.

But it’s a state of affairs that suits the short, stocky keyboard man.

He doesn’t look or act like a star, and the southern eccentricities of the rest of the band seem to have left him behind.

Chuck is open and friendly to all and talks easily and willingly about his role in the band.

This openness makes him unusual in a band where a degree of surliness has always existed.

Perhaps the tragedies haven’t touched him quite as deep as the others, and perhaps the fact that he’s rarely asked to do interviews has left him without the hostility towards writers that the rest of the band seem to bear.

Or it could be that Leavell is as much a studio musician as he is a member of the Allman Brothers.

Though the Macon group situation does lend itself to a high degree of incestuousness between bands, Leavell can be heard everywhere on Capricorn releases.

But he’s not contributing his talents merely to get his name around (a member of the Allman Brothers surely doesn’t need that), but because he just likes playing the piano.

The lengthy lay offs the Allmans are currently going through have left him with a great deal of spare time with nothing to do.

Leavell came into the Allmans Band through having worked with Alex Taylor and Dr. John.

The Taylor band introduced him to the Capricorn people and it was while he was with Dr. John that a call came through inquiring whether he was available to work on the session for Gregg Allman’s solo album.

“About a week later” he recalls, “I found myself working with the others in the group.

“I did an In Concert TV show with them, the first time I ever appeared in public with the group, and ever since then I’ve been there.

“Originally I was just called in for the studio session with Gregg but one thing led to another and now I’ve been with them over a year.”

Chuck hails from Birmingham, Alabama, and his first musical experience was working on sessions in Muscle Shoals where he played keyboards for a number of rhythm and blues artists around 1968 and 1969.

“Then I moved on to rock and roll. When I first came to Macon I played a while with Wet Willie and then a group called Sundown and then with Alex Taylor.”

The Taylor Band was his first “real” group and Chuck stayed with them for a year and half, touring around the US and making albums.

“Eventually Alex decided he didn’t want to go on the road any more, and that left the band with nothing to do.

“But the Capricorn people liked us and wanted to keep us in Macon where we’d be available for anything that turned up.

“At this time Capricorn was talking to Dr John about some tie-up and he asked me to join his band on organ.

“I learned more about playing keyboards during three months with Dr John than in the three years up until then. He’s just so good.

“I was called away from Dr John to appear on Gregg’s album, but that band was breaking up anyway so it looked as if I was going to be out of a gig again.”

But the wheels of fortune turned the other way and Chuck found himself a member of what was to become America’s hottest rock outfit in a matter of weeks.

“I joined the group two weeks before Berry Oakley had his accident so it was one weirdness after another.

“It was something we couldn’t think about; we just had to keep moving.

“I did the Brothers and Sisters album and was truly amazed at how well it did. I didn’t expect it to do nearly as well, but I was really pleased when it happened.

“It was a very free atmosphere during the sessions for that record. Someone would come along with a basic song and we’d all add our own ideas.

“Recording with the Brothers is really a natural coming together of six musicians and applying their talents to whatever piece of music we’re working on.”

Asked to explain the Brothers’ popularity, Chuck immediately cites the management as being the best he’s ever come across in the rock business.

He’s also aware that the fact that the band has managed to stay together while the tragedies have occurred.

“We surprised a lot of people by staying together and stretching the music to even further boundaries.

“There are a lot of bands who go through hard times and troubles and eventually can’t get it together any more, but to see a band go through the changes we have gone through and still keep going has given us a lot of respect.

“This, I think, has made a deep impression on the general public.”

Chuck Leavell is a self-taught musician although he had piano lessons at an early age and gave them up.

His mother and sister both played piano and he admits to trying to mimic them at the keyboard.

He took up guitar first of all and played in local amateur rock and roll bands in Birmingham but to this day he cannot read a note of music, something he regrets deeply because he would like to be able to score horn parts and work at arrangement.

He frequently turns up on other albums, saying he needs the additional outlet to the Brothers Band. He appeared on the Martin Mull album, two Cowboy albums and also did some sessions with Don Maclean.

“Everybody in the Brothers wants to expand their activities and go off in other directions. It seems that every month or so we have to get away from each other to try something different.

“I would like to try and do an album all of my own but first of all I want to make an album with the rhythm section from the Brothers.

“I write my own music, but I can’t write lyrics at all. I feel that instrumental music is much more universal than songs with vocals and that’s why the Allmans’ songs are mostly instrumental.

“If you speak a foreign language you can’t understand what we’re singing about, but with instrumental it doesn’t matter.”

As far as other keyboard players are concerned, Chuck prefers players with feeling rather than players with education.

He’d rather listen to a Leon Russell or a Dr John than a Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, and his favourite British keyboard virtuoso is Chris Stainton.

“I admire Keith Emerson but he is so structured. I’d prefer a player with more feeling but less technique any day. I listen to a lot of jazz musicians too, like Chick Corea and Gary Burton.

“When I’m on the road I like to go to little clubs to see what’s happening inside, but I don’t go to see many big bands.

“I’ll go and see Dylan because I have listened to him with the Band a lot and if the Beatles ever got back together I would go and watch them.

“But most of the rock and roll that is coming out of England right now, I can’t get into.

“The Slade and Bowie scene and the glitter business is not my thing at all. Clapton is probably my favourite British musician, and, of course Stainton.”

Chuck says he never really knew Duane Allman, but remembers him coming to Alabama for sessions.

“He was the kind of cat you couldn’t take your eyes off. I can remember, even early on, he was into unusual ideas for the guitar.

“I remember him rubbing his guitar against the amp to experiment with feedback a long time ago.”

© Chris CharlesworthMelody Maker, 16 February 1974

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