Chuck Leavell recalls the Rolling Stones’ tense ’80s era

Chuck Leavell recalled the “excited” experience of joining The Rolling Stones precisely when relations between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had reached their lowest ebb.

The previous Allman Brothers Band the pianist joined the Stones’ lineup 40 years ago, after trying out the previous year and thinking he didn’t get the job.

“I got a call from [road manager] Ian Stewart, and within 36 hours I was on a plane for an audition,” Leavell shared Classic rock in a recent interview. “I stayed three days and thought I had the position, but they kept Ian McLagan for that tour. Later that year they came to Atlanta and Stu called me … ‘Do you want to come and have a bash?'” So I got up and sat in on a few songs. Towards the end of the year, Stu called and said, ‘We’re going on tour in Europe next year, and everyone’s decided they want you.’ So that’s when I first got the official position.”

But Jagger and Richards butted heads at the time, which would soon lead to both musicians embarking on solo projects.

“Things were tense,” Leavell said. “It wasn’t the best time in their relationship at all. But even with that excitement, making music was a process they knew they had to go through. It wasn’t just an obligation to a label, it was about making music I really admire how they found a way to work through it.

He noted that “it speaks volumes for why we’re celebrating 60 years with the Rolling Stones. They’ve always found a way to make it work, and on this day the band is closer than ever.”

Leavell was named the Stones’ musical director, a title he distanced himself from. “I kind of mock it because Mick and Keith are the musical directors as far as I’m concerned,” he explained. I set tempos, became the go-to guy for arrangements, which began to translate into lines on stage. … If Mick is working the crowd, he might look back and I can give him a signal to keep rolling or ‘here comes the verse’, ‘here comes the chorus’ that sort of thing. I also put together the set lists.”

He added that “people say, ‘Don’t you get tired of ‘Start Me Up’ or any of those songs you’ve played 1,000 times?” And the answer is, ‘Hell, no! Are you cooking with me?’ I look over here and I’m like, “Is that Keith Richards? Is that Ronnie Wood?” I’m thrilled every time.”

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