Chuck Leavell leads a musical life that most guys would trade everything to have – playing keyboards for the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton the Allman Brothers and later next month with John Mayer – but his Moment was one all the ladies will love.
When we met with Chuck last week to discuss which of his many Moments he’d like to choose for our column and video, we suggested that night when he was 13 years old and strolled into a concert featuring Ray Charles and Billy Preston.
“Ray and the band played an incredible show,” Chuck wrote on his own website. “It had such an impact on me that I made up my mind there and then that that was what I wanted to do. I decided that night what I wanted as my career.”
He dropped out of his high school in Birmingham, Alabama, three years later and made his way 115 miles northwest to the small but musically magical town of Muscle Shoals, where a group of white musicians formed a recording studio that gained hip status in the late 1960s and 1970s as an away-from-the-limelight place to write and record. I first heard of the town in the lyrics of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 hit “Sweet Home Alabama,” but it had already been a recording stop for Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Duane Allman and later the Stones, Traffic, Elton John and Willie Nelson.
But neither Muscle Shoals, nor Macon, Georgia – where Chuck moved in 1969 to join Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records and to play with Dr. John, The Marshall Tucker Band and was asked to join the Allman Brothers (ABB) at age 20 – were Chuck’s Moment. We even suggested his Moment might be when the Rolling Stones called him to join their band in 1982. Nope.
The Moment Chuck chose was New Year’s Eve 1972 (eve of 1973, Chuck corrected the date after video was recorded) when he was 19 and playing with ABB at The Warehouse in New Orleans. That was the night he had his first date with Rose Lane White, a woman he soon married. He not only fell in love with Rose Lane, he fell in love with her family and their 1,000-acre farm a few miles southeast of Macon. “The reason I use that Moment is because it has led me to so many incredible things,” he said.
To quickly review Chuck’s amazing career tickling of the ivories:
- Toured and recorded several albums with ABB, starting with “Brothers and Sisters,” which included classics “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica.”
- Formed rock/jazz/blues fusion group Sea Level with ABB drummer Jaimoe
- Joined the Rolling Stones in 1982, recording 10 albums, serving as unofficial “musical director,” choosing the set line-up for thousands of concert tours around the world … some lasting as long as two years
- Played alongside Eric Clapton on the “Unplugged” album
- Released four of his own albums
- Wrote three books, including an autobiography, “Between Rock and a Home Place”
- Inducted into both the Alabama and Georgia Music Halls of Fame
Now at age 59, looking back on all that rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck really wants to talk about his true loves: his wife, family and his deep abiding care for the environment, support for which he is spending an increasing amount of his time and treasure.
In 1981, Rose Lane’s grandmother died, bequeathing to her the 1,000-acre Charlane Plantation in Twiggs County and sparking in Chuck an interest in forestry. Realizing so many musical instruments were made from wood similar to the tall trees on Charlane – another “ah-ha Moment” for Chuck – he took a correspondence course in forestry while playing concerts on the road. Soon, he was not only planting thousands of trees to replace the row crops that had been planted by Rose Lane’s family for generations, but he realized tree farmers were not as well-represented or supported as crop farmers. So he became an advocate for other tree farmers, speaking around the world and testifying several times before congressional committees. He published “Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest” in 2001.
Chuck and Rose Lane’s efforts were recognized in 1999 as the National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year and he is the only two-time recipient of the Georgia Tree Farmer of the Year award. Now more than 2,000 acres, Charlane plays host to tours for schoolchildren, retreats for artists (there’s one later this month) and their farm serves as an inspiration and a laboratory for managed farming and hunting. When Chuck is not touring, he’s at Charlane, working sunrise to sundown on his tractor in the woods and fields on the land they both love.
Four years ago, Chuck answered a phone call from Joel Babbit and was convinced to expand his love of the land and environment into a website. The two co-founded the Mother Nature Network website, which in its short lifespan has become the most visited for-profit environmental website in the world, number fourin terms of all sites, behind NOAA, Care2, and National Park Service. With a staff of 26 in downtown Atlanta’s 191 Building and correspondents around the world, MNN’s business model is not to sell advertising but instead to sell sponsorships of each of its coverage categories for upwards of $300,000 each.
Chuck’s 1972 Moment in New Orleans, as he recalls, “led to the birth of the Mother Nature Network, which really gave me a broad platform to talk about environmental concerns, which is deep in my heart and a deep passion for me. And of course it led to two beautiful daughters, Amy and Ashley, and two grandsons, Miles and Rocko. And Rosie and I have been together now … it will be 39 years, this year.”
Next week in Moments: Noel Khalil, whose development work on Atlanta’s northside caught the attention of another, better-known African-American developer.
Don’t miss previous Moments from Season Two: Solon Patterson, Charles Ackerman,Santa Claus, Mark McDonald, Frank Skinner, Tom Murphy, Matt Arnett, Kasim Reed, Alana Shepherd, Charles Driebe, Hank Aaron, Kevin Rathbun, Larrie Del Martin, Mike Luckovich, Dan Matthews.
Don’t miss previous Moments from Season One: Arthur Blank, Doug Hertz, Thomas Dimitroff, Jenny Levison, Brad Cunard, Joe Roberts, Plemon El-Amin, Bob Williams, Gary Price, John Dewberry, Bill Tush, Milton Little, Hope Arbery, Bo Jackson, Lisa Borders, Tom Key, Bob Voyles, Joyce Fownes, Joel Babbit, John Pruitt, Noel Khalil, Chuck Leavell, Bill Nigut, Eveylyn Winn-Dixon, Steve Nygren, Chris White, Josh Starks, Ryan Gravel, Shirley Franklin, Sam Massell and Clark Howard.
Video by Reid Childers of Eyesome Productions.