Chuck Leavell Talks Stones Tour
The Rolling Stones’ keyboardist reflects on the 50 and Counting Tour
Fan & Friend
[My role as musical director] is something that developed over time. Back around Steel Wheels 1989, I began to take notes during the rehearsals – making charts for certain songs, noting the tempo we did and so forth. I did it mainly for my own use, but when we would go back over some song that the band didn’t know that well, I became the “go-to” guy for the arrangement and other details. As time went on, I made more notes and charts and started giving them input on setlist choices. Also, I came from a unique perspective: I was a fan way before I came into the band and encouraged them to do certain songs that they had never, or rarely, tried onstage. As we did more rehearsals and more tours, the book of charts and notes I took expanded into two huge volumes, all alphabetized and organized for easy reference. That gave me the ability to make it easy to pick just about any song out of the deep well of material and help everyone to navigate the tune. Since doing this essentially made me know most of the arrangements by heart, when we would get to the stage and anyone might not be sure of when a solo was coming up when a bridge or other special part was to happen – they would physically look over to me for some guidance. I began giving signals for that kind of thing.
I keep all of their setlists for reference, so when we would go back to any given city – either on the same tour or the previous one or two – I would encourage the band to play as many different songs as we could from the last time we played there. We look at the set much like a theater play: Act 1 might be the opening four or five numbers, Act 2 might be getting into a ballad or two and less known numbers, Act 3 might be some jam or production numbers leading into Keith Richards’ two songs, and Act 4 is sort of the “home run.” We sort through the songs by section. I have an Excel program on my computer with all the songs in categories: rockers, icons, ballads, soul, cover songs, blues and so forth.
It’s been great to have [former Stones] Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor, and guests like Mary J. Blige, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Florence Welch, Gary Clark Jr. and my good pal John Mayer onboard this run. Of course, the fans that have followed the band through its entire career, or most of it, were really excited to see Bill and Mick onstage. Bill and I stayed in touch through the years after he left, and so, on a personal level, it was wonderful for me. Mick is also much loved by the fans for his time with the band. He brought a lot to the table in those years and brought it with him to the stage for these shows. It was tough to only have them play a song or two, but we also wanted to accommodate the other guest artists – and, of course, to play as the core band we have now. Eric was a highlight for me as I played with him for two-and-a-half years. He killed it on “Champagne and Reefer.” Mick doing “Midnight Rambler” made for a cool jam. Since I have been working with John Mayer over the past two years, he was my suggestion – and I’m so glad he could make it.
The Stones have a history of great keyboardists and piano players: Ian [Stu] Stewart, Jack Nitzsche, Nicky Hopkins, Ian McLagan, Billy Preston and others that made brief appearances – like my pal Mac Rebennack [Dr. John] and another one of my heroes, Leon Russell. In the beginning, it was really Stu’s band, and when I came in, he became my big brother. He treated me so well and looked after me as the “new guy.” He was such a great guy, unique individual and fantastic boogie and rock player. I got to know Nicky a bit – we were introduced in ‘82 by Ronnie Wood when we played Wembley Stadium. I was such a big fan and was quite nervous when we met. He invited me to lunch the next day, and we went – just the two of us. We traded stories, and we wrote letters to each other after that for years. I always called him “The Master of the Motif.” He had this unbelievable ability to find these little vignettes that just made a song like “Angie” and “She’s A Rainbow.” It’s sad that he, Stu, Billy and Jack are no longer with us.