Some believe that there are only four Rolling Stones, but then some say there's a fifth: keyboardist Chuck Leavell. He's been on tours with the band for more than 30 years — but that hasn't been his only gig. At 20, he was asked to join The Allman Brothers Band. Since then, he's spent his career playing with famous artists, from touring with George Harrison to recording with Aretha Franklin and John Mayer.
"Music, for me, has always been about colors, emotions and feelings rather than notes on a page or chords," Leavell says.
Leavell is currently playing with The Rolling Stones as part of the band's 50 & Counting tour.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Rolling Stones are Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood. And some say the fifth Stone is Chuck Leavell. He's been in the band's keyboard chair for more than three decades. His nimble fingers bring to life songs like "Honky Tonk Women."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONKY TONK WOMEN")
GREENE: Those fingers are moving. That's Chuck Leavell playing with The Rolling Stones during their current "50 and Counting Tour." The band performed in Washington, D.C. last night and Leavell stopped by our studios to talk about touring with the Stones and a whole lot more.
Chuck Leavell, welcome to the program.
CHUCK LEAVELL: Dave, it's so good to be with you. Thanks for the invitation.
GREENE: Those fingers are really moving.
LEAVELL: Well, I try to keep them that way. Yeah, man.
GREENE: Tell me why the piano. How did you get interested in that instrument?
LEAVELL: Well, you know, the fact is my mother taught me how to play. And she played for family enjoyment. She wasn't a teacher or professional or anything. You know, I'd tug on her skirt it say, Momma, play me something on the piano and she would. And, oh, I was just fascinated. You know, I loved watching her hands go up and down the keyboard. And she would do a very interesting thing. She would say, Well, Chuck, what would it sound like if there was a terrible storm outside? You know, and I'd rumble down on the low end - roll-roll-roll - you know. And, Chuck, what would it sound like if you hit a home run?
So music for me has always been about colors, emotions and feelings, rather than notes on a page or chords.
GREENE: You knew really early on that you wanted to make music a career. And by age 20, you were asked to become part of The Allman Brothers.
LEAVELL: I had moved to Macon, Georgia and was looking for opportunity because there was a record label there called Capricorn Records. It was kind of climbing up the ladder over a period of a couple of years. And then members of the Allmans had found out about me. And this is after the tragic death of Duane Allman. You know, I think it was interesting and probably a good thing that the band did not look to try to replace Duane with another guitar player because you just don't replace Duane Allman.
LEAVELL: Irreplaceable. And to go in a different direction and to, you know, put a piano in that role was, well, certainly good for me. (Chuckling)
And so, this brought a whole other texture of sound into the band - you know, having a piano. So you look at a song like "Jessica," which has kind of become a signature song for me, and still enjoy hearing today, you had the blend between the Hammond B3 and the piano and guitar.
GREENE: Well, I'm glad you enjoy hearing it because we wanted to play a little.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "JESSICA")
GREENE: So after The Allman Brothers, Chuck Leavell, you played with a fusion group called Sea Level. And then not too long after that you encountered The Rolling Stones for the first time. What was that meeting like?
LEAVELL: Ah, it was amazing. You know, Sea Level had actually broken up and I kind of went home despondent one day, talking to my wife, Rose Lane. And I said, Rosie, you know, phone hadn't been ringing, career is not exactly taking off. Maybe I should just not worry about music for a while. And she listened very patiently.
LEAVELL: And then she said, Well, that's all fine and good, Chuck. But guess what? The Rolling Stones called you today.
GREENE: You're kidding. That's amazing.
GREENE: You're thinking that your music career might be over. And she says, oh by the way, The Stones gave you a phone call.
LEAVELL: Absolutely true.
GREENE: Well, now you're the musical director. I mean, I've read you say that it's your job to keep Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie - the members of The Stones - happy. What does that mean?
LEAVELL: You think about what Mick Jagger is doing up there. You know, he's got so much on his mind when he's performing, so there's...
GREENE: He's like one of the most active performers in the history of rock 'n' roll.
LEAVELL: Absolutely, you know, and so there are points in the song where, uh-oh, where are we, or is the bridge coming up or is the solo coming up? And if anybody has any doubts, they can look at me and I can give hand signals or signals with my eyes to say, you know, yeah, we're going here or we're going there.
GREENE: I love this image of Mick Jagger sometimes being so into the crowd and the moment that, I mean, he gets a little distracted and needs to kind of look over at you to get his place back.
LEAVELL: Well, it's an enjoyable role for me. But I mean let's face it. You know, musically, from the piano standpoint of view, there are some songs that I get to stretch a little bit on. But it's not the kind of band that offers a piano player a tremendous amount of improvisation.
GREENE: You do get some ribbing, though, from the other members of The Stones for sort of your other life. You do conservation work. You're a tree farmer. Tell me how that all came about.
LEAVELL: Well, I like to say it's all my wife's fault.
GREENE: I like to say that a lot, too.
LEAVELL: Blame it on the wife. By the way, Rose Lane and I will be celebrating our 40th anniversary...
GREENE: Congratulations for that. That's really cool.
LEAVELL: Thank you. So the story is that unbeknownst to me I was dating the farmer's daughter. So as I spent time with the family, walking the woods, seeing the passion and dedication that they had for the land, it began to rub off on me. And then, in 1981, her grandmother passed away, left her a parcel of land and it became our responsibility to carry on this heritage of stewardship.
So the more I studied up on forestry, the more interested I became. And, of course, the direct connection is that where does this marvelous instrument that's given me my career and so much joy, where does it come from - from the resource of wood.
GREENE: Listening to you talk about the woods, you have a solo album that really harkens to this influence. It's called "Back to the Woods."
LEAVELL: "Back to the Woods." The theme of the album is a tribute to pioneering blues piano players.
GREENE: This is a song called "I Got to Go Blues."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT TO GO BLUES")
LEAVELL: By the way, the vocalist on that track is a good friend of mine, Bruce Hampton from down in Atlanta, Georgia. And it was a joy to have him make a guest appearance on the record.
GREENE: Chuck Leavell, you are in sort of a unique role in music. You were in The Allman Brothers and The Stones, you're "The Fifth Stone," quote-unquote. I mean do you like that role? Or looking back, would you have preferred to kind of just have one identity, one band.
LEAVELL: The joy of my career has been dancing with all these different partners. You know, I spent two years with Eric Clapton. We did the "Unplugged" record together. Played on George Harrison's last solo tour, which was - are you kidding me - you know, to work with George Harrison? And, you know, done session work with Aretha Franklin, recently on John Mayer's last record.
So that's been the joy of my career. You learn something from one setting, you apply it to another. And it's just been tremendous for my career.
GREENE: Well, if you see Mick Jagger playing on stage, and you see him look back to kind of take a look over...
GREENE: ...and find his place in the song, he'll be looking at the man I'm talking to, Chuck Leavell.
Thanks so much for joining us.
LEAVELL: Oh, great to be with you. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HONKY TONK WOMEN")
GREENE: Chuck Leavell, he's keyboardist for The Rolling Stones. He's also co-founder of the environmental site, Mother Nature Network.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.