The book has had its second printing and it still hasn’t fully sunk in. Chuck Leavell wrote the foreword. The keyboardist who provided the soundtracks for so many lives. The guy who played with the Allman Brothers, Sea Level (get it? C. Leavell?), Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Rolling frickin’ Stones. That Chuck Leavell, one of the most in-demand piano players in the world.
I’m speechless. Numb from where I’ve pinched myself. And if they do three, four, five printings (a man can dream), I’ll still be stunned and it has nothing to do with my imposter syndrome. It’s Chuck Leavell, man! He’s been a music hero of mine since the 1970s – a music hero to millions, creator of some of the most iconic sounds we’ve heard. His piano solo in Jessica, for example. If it’s never given you chills or made you want to get up off the couch, check your pulse.
That Chuck Leavell. Tree farmer, conservationist, author, kind person. He’s such an authentically creative and industrious man who gets so much done in a typical day, that Billy Bob Thornton says, in hilarious Bruce Hamptonesque deadpan, “He’s the kind of guy that makes you feel bad about yourself.” That’s from the wonderful documentary, Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man, which came out last year.
Billy Bob is joined by Jimmy Carter, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, David Gilmour, John Mayer, and a bunch of folks who sing their personal praises of Chuck throughout the movie, which tells the story of this down-to-Earth, prolific artist, who is probably the first person in the music business you think of when you hear the phrase, “fine human being.”
So how the hell did this schmo, your faithful if unreliable narrator, ever cross paths with Mister Leavell? How else? Work.
Years ago, I worked as an editor/writer for a well-regarded business magazine here in Georgia. I put editor first because I had a variety of editor titles (senior, managing, then executive), but I was primarily a writer. Didn’t do much editing. But one of the sections of the magazine that I did edit was our biggest annual project, the 100 Most Influential Georgians.
A third of the list was composed of friends of the publisher (we may have included a few dead guys occasionally by accident; I can’t be sure) – you must have some influence if you’re cocktail party pals with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. But the other two thirds of the list included people who had legitimate influence – senators, governors, CEOs, philanthropists, environmentalists. And at least one rock star.
At some point we were able to convince the publisher (who also wore the editor-in-chief mantle, but like me did very little editing) to include Chuck Leavell on the list. Even the seersucker wearing boss couldn’t argue with the Rolling Stones. So Chuck made the list and stayed on it for years. As tree farmer of the year, as co-founder of the Mother Nature Network, as an author, as a rock music icon. Influence. He deserved to be on the list. Plus, he had way, way, way more fans than Sonny Perdue and I think more people than usual attended our rubber chicken gala just to be near a Rolling Stone and Allman Brother all at the same time.
Of course, as editor of that section, I got to assign the 100 little stories that we wrote for the section (a paragraph each, with a mugshot and credentials). I usually had four or five other writers helping me, and usually gave myself the most boring people to write about, plus Chuck. Yep, that’s how I met Mister Leavell. Work.
I contacted him through his people and he got right back in touch from his personal number, acted like he was shocked to be included on such a business-heavy list of muckety mucks, but was truly honored and showed up at the awards banquet.
Anyway, through the years, in those too-rare instances when I had the opportunity to write a music story, Chuck often was a go-to source, a reliable and experienced voice who could talk about the artistic and business sides of the tunes industry, and always make it interesting.
I also interviewed Chuck for the book, prodding him for his memories of Bruce, how they met, the famous gig at the Georgia Theatre, which became Aquarium Rescue Unit’s first album. Chuck, the consummate pro, brought in particularly for that engagement, no rehearsal, no nothing, just Chuck flying by the seat of his pants making it sound like he’d been with the band forever. “It put me on my toes like I’d never been before, and it remains one of the recordings I am proudest to be on.”
Fast forward to 2019. I was meeting my editors at the University of Georgia Press face-to-face for the first time. They had a helpful to-do list to think about as I closed in on finishing the manuscript. Topping the list: Get someone good to write the foreword. Can you think of someone that Col. Bruce’s fans, or readers of this book would know?
Yes, I could. Chuck Leavell. Like Bruce and Johnny Sandlin, back when they were planning for the Georgia Theatre gig, Chuck was the first guy I thought of. The first-class go-to guy for so many people. I had no expectations, just hope when I reached out to him. And when he said yes, that he’d be glad to, I nearly passed out with glee. Then a few weeks later he turned in a beautiful short essay that leads off my first book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography.”
Thank you, Chuck.
And it still hasn’t fully sunk in.