Rolling Stones Keys Man Reveals 50 Years of Rock Glory in Biopic
(Bloomberg) -- Padding around his 3,700 acres of pineland in Bullard, Georgia, Chuck Leavell -- kitted out in heavy-duty gardening gloves and a Bunyan-sized chain saw -- doesn’t strike you as a guy who’s spent half a century frolicking with some of the most drug-addled gods of rock.
But Leavell has done just that -- and more. A new film, “The Tree Man,” chronicles the keyboard player’s rise from a session player in the South to his perch as musical director for the Rolling Stones, a title he earned after joining the band in 1982. Along the way, he’s laid down tracks with a slew of other superstars, including the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.
Leavell’s off-stage life is similarly impressive, if a little less loud. The 68-year-old was a trailblazer in the sustainable tree farming business, and has shared his passion for private land conservation at Congressional hearings, in meetings with mayors and governors, and even U.S. presidents.
Bloomberg News dialed into a Zoom call with Leavell and filmmaker Allen Farst to talk about “The Tree Man,” as well as the musician’s passion for touring, farming and making frittatas.
How does a filmmaker based in Dayton, Ohio, hook up with a guy who travels the world with the Rolling Stones?
Allen Farst: I first met Chuck after a mutual friend recommended he sit in on a rock and blues record I was working on in 2002. I thought he was kidding at first, but he ended up coming to Memphis to record a few songs with us. We found out he liked wine, which worked to our advantage, because he ended up playing on pretty much the whole damn record.
Fifteen years later, I was shooting a commercial in Las Vegas and noticed that the Stones were in town. The show got canceled after Mick came down with laryngitis, which gave us some time to get together. That’s when Chuck told me about this documentary he had in mind. I was looking for something to get step away from making commercials, and this just hit like a lightning bolt when he asked me to do it. I knew that if he’d open his black book for me and we could get half of the people he’s been involved with to talk, we’d have a great story.
How long had this idea been percolating?
Chuck Leavell: Oh, for about five years or so. I thought it would be nice to have a document for my family and future generations that covers my 50-year career, from the 70s and 80s to the present. I had no idea how Allen was going to make a story out of all these interviews [more than 80 were conducted for the film], but he was able to weave them all together and make sense out of it.
One of the great moments in the film was during the taping of Eric Clapton’s Unplugged concert, where you took an emphatic and uncharacteristically long solo on the song “Old Love.”
CL: We had rehearsed that song for a week prior to the show, but Eric ended up discarding it. I think he felt he had too many slow numbers on the set list. The audience was hungry for more music after the show ended, and Eric turned to me and said, “What should we do?” I said “Old Love,” man. Let’s just say I didn’t play that extended solo during rehearsals.
Another great scene was when David Gilmour gave you some advice on how to sing “Comfortably Numb” before his concert at Pompeii.
CL: It was big surprise when he asked me to sing the part originally sung by Roger Waters, and I wanted to do it justice. He told me when you sing, curl your lip a little bit. Basically, give it some attitude and don’t just speak the words. It was good advice for me to get into character.
We’re about to see a new administration take over the White House. What would you like to see out of that on the conservation front?
CL: Huge challenges remain. Obama gave us eight years of not as much momentum as we’d like to have seen, but at least it was forward momentum. This past administration rolled back over 100 environmental rules -- on toxic substances, air and water pollution, drilling and extraction, and so much more. Thankfully, some of these have already been struck down by courts. And the truth is that most Americans don’t want these rollbacks, and even some of the industries who could benefit from them didn’t agree with all the actions.
But I am hopeful. I believe Biden will do some positive things, but so much has been torn apart that it’ll be hard to get things back on track. It’s complicated, and there’ll be a lot of resistance to putting some programs back into place.
You’ve said the tariffs that were slapped on Canadian lumber by the Trump administration resulted in higher prices for U.S. consumers while doing nothing to bolster the profits for U.S. timber companies. Do you see this changing?
CL: Well, this another complicated issue, and sadly there’s no magic wand for it. What happened is that Canada began buying up lumber mills throughout the Southeast to avoid paying the tariffs. So now a handful of Canadian companies have a near-monopoly in the area and they can say, hey, if you want to sell your timber here’s the price we’re going to pay, which is about 50% of what it should be. There’s no negotiation about it.
Personally, I think it’s a Department of Commerce issue. It would have been nice if Wilbur Ross stepped in, but he didn’t. Nobody has. Perhaps, if they took a close look at why there’s such a large degree of foreign ownership and what effect that’s having on market prices. But free enterprise is free enterprise, and I can’t knock Canada for what they’re doing.
A report came out earlier this week that said Brazil has cleared about 2.7 million acres of rain forest so far this year. How concerned should we be?
CL: These are the lungs of the planet, man, and for them to play willy-nilly about it is a terrible tragedy. The good news is that during the debates Biden did step up and say, hey, let’s find a solution. If we can find some way to satisfy their economic situation maybe they’ll leave the forest the way it is.
I noticed on the last tour that Keith and Ronnie don’t spend half their time between songs fiddling around with booze and cigarettes. Did they both quit indulging?
CL: I would have better confirmation had we toured this year [laughs], but I can report that Ronnie quit smoking about five years ago. He gave up drinking as well. As for Keith, I know he gave up hard liquor and I did read that he quit smoking, but I haven’t spoken with him about it so I can’t confirm if that’s true.
I think there’s a sensibility with all of us that we love what we do and we want to keep doing it, there’s probably some things we need to give up in order to keep being able to perform.
What’s your next project?
CL: I have an idea to do a gospel record called “The Gospel According to Chuck.” It’s not so much from a religious perspective but to show how gospel piano styles have influenced rock. Years ago we did a project called “Back to the Woods” which focused on the pioneers of blues piano. This is in a similar vein.
The movie begins with you whipping up a frittata for breakfast. Is that a go-to meal for you?
CL: Yeah, frittatas are a staple. I enjoy making them -- sauté some onions and peppers, grate some cheese, get the eggs ready. I make them for our clients from time to time.
Barbecue sauce: vinegar or tomato-based sauce?
CL: [Laughs] This is the big question, isn’t it? I’m more of a fan of the Carolina-type sauce, which is vinegar based. I’m not a fan of the sweet stuff.
“The Tree Man” can be seen on video-on-demand services including Amazon Prime and Apple iTunes. Other options will be available on www.chuckleavellthetreeman.com as they become available.
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