As the legendary Rolling Stones celebrate 50 years as one of the pioneering acts of rock n roll, one Middle Georgian has an especially good seat for the festivities.
Veteran piano player Chuck Leavell, 60, continues to sit at the Stones keyboards on stage, something he has done quite a bit with the band for more than 30 years.
Leavell is currently in England, where the band is performing shows with guests such as Jeff Beck and Mary J. Blige. The band then heads to New York and New Jersey to conclude the mini-tour next month.
Leavell, who lives in Dry Branch, got his first big break in the music business when he was recruited to become a member of the Allman Brothers Band after guitarist Duane Allman died. During that time, Leavell worked with famed music promoter Bill Graham, who ran Filmore East and Filmore West.
After The Allman Brothers Band broke up temporarily in 1976 and Leavell started his own band, Sea Level, Graham helped that band promote itself. It was Graham who ultimately connected Leavell with the Stones.
Bill eventually became the tour director for the Stones and in 1981 I got a call from his office, Leavell wrote in an e-mail to The Telegraph. He had suggested me for an audition with the band. It all happened quite quickly, and within 48 hours I was on a plane to Longview Farm in Massachusetts where the they were rehearsing. I was supposed to be there for a day, but they kept me there for three days. It was a great experience, and I was called to do the European tour with them in 82 and Ive had the seat ever since.
The acclaim Leavell has received from his work with The Allman Brothers Band and the Rolling Stones has led to performing with the likes of Eric Clapton and George Harrison.
Leavell, also a noted author and tree farmer, said hes been working with the Stones during rehearsals for the past seven weeks in Paris, followed by production rehearsals at Londons Wembley Arena.
The process was just fantastic, and we touched on some 75 or more tunes, he said in the e-mail. The hard part was getting it down to the 23 or so we will do from night to night. We have worked hard to put together a balanced set that includes songs from most all the bands eras. And dont forget, we have two new tunes as well.
Leavell said the band had two warm-up shows in small venues in Paris. Even though it had been more than five years since the band members performed together in public, the Stones didnt miss a beat during those Paris shows.
It was magical to get back on stage and play with the guys again -- truly magical, he wrote. The amazing thing is what good shape everyone is in. The energy is so strong, the passion so deep. I think we all have a realization of how fortunate we are to still be able to do this and to do it right.
Leavell lists Honky Tonk Women as his favorite Stones song to perform.
It is so hard to pick a favorite out of this deep, deep well of material, but when folks ask me that, I tell them Honky Tonk Women, he wrote. It may be a simple little tune, but it has a certain thing about it that is so fun makes people so happy. When we play it live, all the girls want to be that honky tonk woman and all the guys want that honky tonk woman.
Leavell said the band currently is only playing the five shows it has already booked for the 50th anniversary tour, but Leavell said there could be more shows added in 2013.
There is at least a possibility that we might carry on in some way next year, he wrote. But for now, this is it and there wont be any decisions made about the future until these shows are done and the four principal members assess the situation. I can tell you that I certainly would love to see it happen and am keeping my fingers crossed. I think its too good to limit it to just five shows, and I know the fans all across the world would like to see us carry on.
Given all the great talent with whom Leavell -- himself an inductee into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame -- has performed, how does playing with the Stones compare?
Its the ROLLING STONES, he wrote. There is nothing you can really compare it with. But the great thing in my career is that I have been able to work with such a wide array of artists -- the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, John Mayer, the Black Crowes and many others. I always learn something from each artist and always have fun in the process. I also get to pursue my own career, which gives me a whole other dimension. But the Stones are pretty much at the top of the heap, arent they? Fifty years -- its quite incredible and it is such an honor to be doing this.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.