Charles Alfred "Chuck" Leavell
(born April 28, 1952) is an American musician, who was a member of the
Allman Brothers Band during the height of their 1970s popularity, a
founding member of the jazz-rock combo Sea Level, a frequently employed
session musician, and long-time touring member of the Rolling Stones.
Leavell has also toured and recorded with Eric Clapton, George Harrison,
Gov't Mule and John Mayer.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Leavell is a mostly self-taught musician.
He started on piano, learning some basics from his mother, Frances
Leavell. The Leavell family moved from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama
when he was five, then back to Birmingham for a few years, finally
settling in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1962. He learned to play guitar from
his cousin, Winston Leavell, and played tuba in junior high for 2 years.
He started his first band, The Misfitz, in 1966. The Misfitz played a
steady gig at the YMCA every Friday night, and eventually were the band
for a Saturday morning television show, Tuscaloosa Bandstand. After the
breakup of the Misfitz, Leavell did session work, and found himself on
his first Gold Record, a single by Freddie North called “Don’t Take Her
She's All I’ve Got”. Leavell also sought out other local musicians to
play with and joined The South Camp in 1968. That band included his
early mentor, Paul Hornsby, who had played in The Hour Glass, a
precursor to The Allman Brothers Band.
In 1969, Hornsby moved to Macon, Georgia. to work for Capricorn Records
as a studio musician and producer, eventually producing such artists as
The Charlie Daniels Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and
others. At Hornsby's suggestion, Leavell came to Macon and helped form
Sundown, which recorded one record on the Ampex label in 1970. That band
broke up shortly thereafter, and Leavell found himself doing some
session work at Capricorn and eventually was tapped to tour with Alex
Taylor, James Taylor’s elder brother. Leavell recorded one record with
Taylor, Dinnertime, which was released in 1972. Leavell continued to
tour with Taylor for a short time afterwards. When Taylor had a falling
out with his manager and the founder of Capricorn, Phil Walden, and quit
touring, Leavell found himself playing with Dr. John. Leavell claims
this was his "college education." However, it wasn’t long before he
caught the attention of Gregg Allman, and was tapped to play on Allman's
first solo record, “Laid Back”, with Johnny Sandlin producing. Allman
and Sandlin introduced the rest of the Allman Brothers Band to Leavell,
and Leavell joined the band in September 1972, when they decided not to
recreate their dual lead guitar sound after the death of Duane Allman,
who had died the previous October, but rather to use a different
instrument as the second lead. Leavell's work was most prominent on the
band's popular 1973 album Brothers and Sisters, and in particular on the
heavily-played instrumental "Jessica." However, only one studio album,
1975's Win, Lose or Draw, followed, again with Leavell's ebullient piano
and keyboard work featured, but with the band in chaos, and on the
brink of destruction.
Leavell with Sea Level
The same year Brothers and Sisters came out, Leavell married Rose Lane
White, who was working as a staff member at Capricorn Records. The
Allmans toured heavily behind Brother and Sisters, playing stadiums and
breaking records for attendance in many venues across the country.
Leavell also appeared on a live record with the band, Wipe the Windows,
Check the Oil, Dollar Gas during this era as well as subsequent
compilations, live performances and re-releases in later years. During
the mid 70's Leavell also appeared on Richard (Dickey) Betts's first
solo record, Highway Call. In addition during this time, he made
multiple contributions on several other Capricorn artists’ recordings
like Bobby Whitlock, Bonnie Bramlett, The Marshall Tucker Band, Cowboy
and more as well as recordings outside the Capricorn family with Tim
Weisberg, Charlie Daniels and others. The Allmans found themselves in
turmoil in 1976, and broke up that year. Later the band re-formed, but
without Leavell as he had moved on to form his own band, Sea Level in
While opening shows for The Allman Brothers Band with The Allman
Brothers' bass guitarist Lamar Williams and drummer Jaimoe, Leavell
stepped up as a frontman for the first time in his career. After The
Allman Brothers Band disbanding in May 1976, the trio added guitarist
Jimmy Nalls and set about touring behind the moniker Sea Level, derived
from Leavell's first initial and last name. The group lasted five years
and released as many albums, each featuring a different configuration of
Leavell's first encounters with The Rolling Stones where auditions on
Long View Farm for the spot of piano player alongside Ian Stewart for
the Rolling Stones 1981 United States tour. Even though Ian McLagan was
chosen, Leavell guested at the Rolling Stones' Atlanta gig on October
26, 1981. For the 1982 European Tour Leavell landed the position of
keyboardist alongside Ian Stewart. Leavell continued to record with the
Stones on their next two albums, during a time when the band was not
touring. After Stewart's death in 1985, Leavell occupied the role of the
group's keyboardist by himself, with the exception of the addition of
Matt Clifford on the Steel Wheels record and tour. He has continued to
tour and record with The Rolling Stones ever since, as well as recording
with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on solo projects. The Stones’ most
recent studio recording was in 2012, Doom and Gloom. He continued to go
on tour with The Rolling Stones, as of 2006, as part of their
record-grossing A Bigger Bang Tour. He served as the unofficial "musical
director" for the band and devised each night's set list with Mick
Jagger. "It's my job to keep Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie all happy",
Leavell stated on his web page.
In addition to his work with The Rolling Stones, Leavell has worked with
George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Gov't Mule, Train, Tinsley Ellis, The
Black Crowes, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Montgomery Gentry, John Mayer,
Miranda Lambert amongst many others in the studio and on the road in
addition to recording five solo albums.
In 2003, Leavell participated in the annual improvisational musical experiment known as Zambiland Orchestra in Atlanta.
Leavell was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2004. He is
also a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. In an April 2007 radio
interview on WOR-AM, Leavell said his three favorite contributions to
songs in his career were "Jessica" with The Allman Brothers Band, "Old
Love" on Eric Clapton's Unplugged, Out of Tears on The Rolling Stones'
Voodoo Lounge, and Drops of Jupiter by Train.
In 2011, Leavell played on John Mayer's album Born and Raised which was
released in May 2012, reaching Number One on the Billboard Chart.
In February 2012, he and the other existing members of the Allman
Brothers Band received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition
to his time in the band from 1972-1976, Leavell performed two shows with
the reunited Allman Brothers Band in 1986. Since 2001, he has performed
as a guest pianist at more than a dozen Allman Brothers Band concerts,
including multiple shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City.
Left to Right: Ray Reach, Chuck Leavell and Peter Wolf at the 2008 BAMA Awards in Birmingham, Alabama
Leavell enjoys "giving back" to the community of his birth. In 1992, he
played on a record titled "Mr. President", which was produced by noted
Birmingham jazz keyboardist and vocalist Ray Reach for the purpose of
raising money for the homeless in the Birmingham area. Leavell and
several other well-known Alabama musicians (including Wayne Perkins,
Chuck Tilley, Charlie Hayward, and Kelley O'Neal) donated their time for
On March 20, 2008, Leavell was given a BAMA Award (Birmingham Area Music
Award) for his contributions to the Birmingham, Alabama musical
heritage. The 2008 BAMA Awards ceremony was held at the Alabama Jazz
Hall of Fame (in the historic Carver Theatre in the Birmingham Civil
Rights District). Leavell performed at this ceremony, accompanied by the
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame All-Stars directed by Ray Reach. Also, at the
same ceremony, a BAMA Award was bestowed upon keyboardist/producer
Leavell makes time to involve himself with other causes, and in 2008
performed with a supergroup which opened for Chuck Berry in Boston. The
concert raised money for artists struggling with addiction. Leavell also
serves on the Georgia Commission for Hearing Impaired and Deaf Persons.
In 2013, Leavell was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the 'Pinetop
Perkins Piano Player' category. Leavell is the celebrity spokesperson
for Sealevel Systems, Inc.
In addition to his musical career, Leavell is a tree farmer in Twiggs
County outside Macon, Georgia, an occupation that began when his wife,
Rose Lane Leavell, inherited land in the early 1980s. Together they
created Charlane Plantation, now a 2500 acre award winning Tree Farm and
hunting preserve. The Leavells are two-time Georgia Tree Farmers of the
Year, and were selected as National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the
Year in 1999. They are staunch supporters of sustainable forestry,
conservation and environmental protection. Chuck wrote his first book,
Forever Green: The History and Hope of The American Forest in 2000. His
autobiography, Between Rock and a Home Place was published in 2005, and
is acclaimed as one of the best rock autobiographies ever published. In
2006, Leavell wrote a children's book, The Tree Farmer. His most recent
book is Growing A Better America: Smart, Strong, Sustainable. The theme
of which is “smart” growth. It has been called one of the best “common
sense environmental books of all time”.
Leavell was appointed by former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to the
Georgia Land Conservation Council in 2008. He has also served on the
Boards of The American Forest Foundation, The United States Endowment
for Forestry and Communities and other influential non-profits and makes
frequent trips to Washington, D.C. to discuss forestry and
environmental policy matters with lawmakers on both sides of the Isle.
In February 2012, the same month he received the Lifetime Achievement
Grammy Award, he was given an Honorary Forest Ranger award from the
United States Forest Service. He has stated that he reveres both of
these honors equally.
Leavell and Joel Babbit are the co-founders of The Mother Nature
Network, an environmental news and information website that launched in
January 2009. The site has grown to be the most visited independent
environmental website in the world. Leavell serves as Director of
Environmental Affairs, and sits on the board of directors for the
company. He hosts two video series on mnn.com: "Love of the Land," in
which he discusses sustainability and conservation issues, and "In The
Green Room," a series in which he interviews fellow celebrities about
the environment and their philanthropic work.