The Core: The Rolling Stones’ Chuck Leavell

Mike Greenhaus on January 25, 2017
The Core: The Rolling Stones’ Chuck Leavell

Postcards from Desert Trip

We all felt some pressure that we had to be at our very best, and all of the artists more than rose to the occasion. We were on the first night, so we knew we had to set the bar high. You could feel the energy pouring out of everyone onstage, and we were all on our toes. The promoters laid it out so nicely, and that made for a nice, relaxed situation for everyone so we could all enjoy the experience. It was definitely a historic weekend of music. We tailored our sets to have the hits and well-known numbers in there, but also some more obscure pieces like “Sweet Virginia,” “Live With Me,” “Mixed Emotions” and some others. We also introduced songs from the new blues record, Blue & Lonesome. On the first night, we did “Ride ‘Em on Down” and, on the following show the next week, we did “Just Your Fool.” We also threw in “Come Together” on the first night. That was [fellow Stones keyboardist] Matt Clifford’s idea. He told me he tried to think of a Beatles song that the Stones could do outside of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which, as you know, was a Lennon/ McCartney song that they wrote for the Stones. We’ve done that one before, and it went down well. But “Come Together” has a vibe that the Stones can do in our own way and it was an excellent choice. Matt suggested it to Mick, and Mick brought it to rehearsals. Paul loved it, and while he was watching our show that first night, gave a fist pump when we did it.

Deep Cuts and “Mixed Emotions” 

I always look back at what we played the last three or four times we were in a city, so we don’t just repeat ourselves and to see what might be interesting. And, yes, if the band has a new record, we want to feature something off of that. Venues certainly can dictate the viability of doing certain songs, so we look at it from many different angles. It is a very deep catalog and there are great songs from all the records and eras. For the Desert Trip gig, we pulled out “Mixed Emotions” from the ‘80s—that is an overlooked time for the band, and that song went down really well. But the fact is, we would have to do a six-to-eight-hour show to get all the tunes I’d like in there, and that is obviously not going to happen. So, we do our best to spread it around and cover as much of the band’s career as possible, and pull out some rarities from time to time.

Southern Touch

I was not there when the basic Blue & Lonesome tracks were cut. As I understand it, the band went into the studio to experiment with some new things and someone, maybe Don Was, suggested doing a blues tune just to break things up and have some fun. They enjoyed it so much that they did another and another, and it went so well that, in three days’ time, they had all the tracks. Then, when we were on the “Olé Olé Olé!” Latin American tour, both Mick and Keith told me they wanted me to be on it. With Don, we arranged for me to overdub my parts in a great new studio in New Orleans, The Parlor. I did most of it on a nice upright piano that they had there, which kept the sounds authentic. That is also the case with all the sounds on the record—really great guitar tones, drum sounds. Growing up in Alabama, I listened to a lot of blues, both on record and live. As we know, blues styles emanated from the South, the Delta. My fingers have a Southern accent.

Fire and Ice

I had heard of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, but had never really dug into them [before Denson joined the Stones’ touring band]. But I can tell you that when he showed up for his first rehearsals with us, he was more than prepared. He knew the tunes, and played with a beautiful blend of fire and ice. He has such a cool and relaxed vibe, but blows with such spice and spark. Bobby Keys would be very proud and pleased. Tim Ries, who is also such a brilliant player, has been with us for some 16 or 17 years now, and he has stepped up as well since Bobby’s passing. The bottom line is that the two of them are the perfect combination for the Stones now, and I’ve had the pleasure of playing with both Karl and Tim on gigs outside the Stones.

Gilmour’s Guys

Back in 1984, I was the musical director on a live broadcast for MTV called Guitar Greats. David was part of that show, and we got on well and had a really good gig. Some 10 years went by with no contact, and then he showed up at some rehearsals we did when I was playing with Eric Clapton in the early ‘90s. He invited me and a couple of other guys in the band to his house, and we had a nice, fun night drinking some fine wine and talking about music and life in general. I also saw David not long after that at a Paul Young concert.

Then another 15 go by with no contact and, one day, my wife is checking the messages on the guest book of my website and says, “Chuck, there is a guy here that says he is David Gilmour and wants you to contact him.” I thought it was a scam, but figured I’d better check into it and, of course, it was him. We talked and he asked me if I was available to tour Europe [this past] summer. It was a lot of homework. David’s music is more complex and requires a lot of finesse and detail. He sent me files of some li e shows he had done recently in South America, and I locked myself in a room with a piano and organ, and wrote charts to all of them and started learning the material. It was just one of the best experiences I’ve ever had playing and touring. I even got to sing the counterpart to Rick Diamond/Getty Images “Comfortably Numb.”

This article originally appears in the January/February 2017 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.