Even if you don’t know Chuck Leavell by name, you’ve almost certainly heard him play. You might know his piano work from the Allman Brothers Band’s thrilling 1973 instrumental “Jessica”, which achieved hummable ubiquity across the UK as the theme tune from Top Gear. Then there’s his session playing for bands such as Train, who put Leavell front and centre on their huge 2001 hit “Drops of Jupiter”. Alternatively, if you’re one of the countless millions who’ve caught The Rolling Stones live at any point since Leavell started touring with them in 1982, you’ll have noticed his unruffled presence anchoring the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band from behind the keys. The 70-year-old with a cherubic face and snowy white beard from Birmingham, Alabama, credits his half-century of success to his ability to lend a touch of Southern rock authenticity to any song he graces. “My hands,” says a grinning Leavell, raising them up as if to play a riff on an invisible piano, “have a Southern accent”.
He’s speaking over video call from a hotel room in Amsterdam, the day after the Stones continued their 60th-anniversary celebrations in front of a local crowd of 53,000. The show had been postponed from June after frontman Mick Jagger tested positive for Covid, but he made a full recovery in time for the band’s massive appearances in London’s Hyde Park. “Mick’s back in perfect form. He’s a madman running around. He must be from another planet, is all we can figure,” says Leavell with palpable awe. “Most of us felt like it was between [the second Hyde Park gig] and Milan as the two best shows of the tour so far, but all the shows have been very consistent.”
He says it with a note of pride in his voice. When it comes to the Stones, consistency is Leavell’s department. Ever since the Steel Wheels tour in 1989, Leavell has been meticulously taking notes of exactly how the Stones do what they do each night on stage. “I did handwritten chord charts for every song,” he explains. “And I would make note of the tempo. If we needed to bump the tempo up, or if it felt good to slow it down a little bit.”
In what is perhaps an example of the essential yin-yang pull at the heart of the Stones, in the early days Leavell found that Jagger tended to want the tunes played faster, while guitarist Keith Richards was perpetually trying to ease things down a notch. “I think somehow, through all this time, we’ve found the balance of the right tempo!” says Leavell, whose encyclopaedic notebooks have become the band’s bible. “They’ve given me the moniker of musical director, which I scoff at,” he says. “Because Mick and Keith are the musical directors of the Rolling Stones.”