Chuck Leavell is a pianist and keyboard player whose career has included tenures as a member of the Allman Brothers Band and Sea Level and as a backup musician for many other acts, among them Dr. John, the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton. He is also a Georgia timber farmer and environmental activist. In 2004 he was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and he received the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy’s Atlanta Hero Award.
Leavell was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 28, 1952. Although he took music lessons briefly as a child, Leavell writes in Between Rock and a Home Place that he “never did learn to read music properly.” Yet from his childhood days, varied musical influences, including southern gospel hymns, rhythm and blues, country, big band, folk, and soul music, helped Leavell cultivate his skills. As a teenager Leavell taught himself the guitar, and he plays the piano by ear. A member of various bands that played in venues around Alabama, he worked briefly in Muscle Shoals during high school and even moved to Nashville, Tennessee, for three months. He also began to work as a keyboardist for recording sessions. Having committed himself to becoming a career musician during a Ray Charles concert (in which Billy Preston played backup keyboards), Leavell eventually dropped out of high school to pursue a musical career.
He relocated to Georgia through the influence of another session player, Paul Hornsby, who had worked with Gregg and Duane Allman in Nashville. Capricorn Records co-owner Phil Walden signed the Allmans to work for his Macon-based label in 1969, and as Walden’s stable of acts grew, Hornsby recommended that Leavell come and be part of the happenings in Macon. In the Capricorn office Leavell met his future wife, Rose Lane White, who was the personal assistant to executive vice president Frank Fenter, and a native of Twiggs County. After the couple married, Leavell became a permanent Georgian. They have two daughters, Amy and Ashley.
In 1981 the Leavells inherited 1,200 acres of land in Twiggs County from Rose Lane Leavell’s grandparents, Julia Faulk and Alton Vestal White. This parcel of land had been part of a large cattle and farming operation that included tree farming. Upon moving to Twiggs County, Leavell found a new passion — environmental science and tree farming. Later that same year, a phone call came from the Rolling Stones, and Leavell was invited to audition for their upcoming Tattoo You tour. This was a life-changing event, and Leavell has been touring with the Stones as a keyboardist and vocalist since 1982.
Over the next twenty years, the Leavells developed the land into a timber farm and hunting plantation, called Charlane. Through his experiences managing Charlane’s forest and natural resources, Leavell became a conservationist and advocate for America’s woodlands. In 1990 and 1998 the American Forest Foundation and the American Tree Farm System recognized the Leavells as Georgia Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year, and in 1999 they received the national version of this same award. The Georgia Wildlife Federation, the National Arbor Day Foundation, the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association, and Quail Unlimited have also recognized the couple for their stewardship of the land.
Leavell has published a book on American forests, Forever Green, and a children’s book, The Tree Farmer. In 2003 he performed the national anthem at a ceremony in which U.S. president George W. Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. A few years later he cofounded the Web site Mother Nature Network, which launched in 2009, and in 2011 he published Growing a Better America: Smart, Strong, and Sustainable.
Throughout his career, Leavell has played and accompanied hundreds of songs with many different musicians and bands. Perhaps the song he is best known for is the Dickey Betts instrumental “Jessica,” which first appeared on the Allman Brothers album Brothers and Sisters (1973). His solo albums include What’s in That Bag? (1998), Forever Blue: Solo Piano (2001), Southscape (2005), Live in Germany (2008), and Back to the Woods (2012). Because the Rolling Stones entrusted him to do the first drafts of song sets during several world tours, People magazine called Leavell “the sixth Rolling Stone.” He has been affiliated with the band since 1982.
Leavell was named an honorary U.S. forest ranger in 2012, and the following year he received a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities.