Sticks and Stones: Chuck Leavell

Whether hugging trees or Rolling Stones, the piano man rocks

Chuck Leavell will perform three songs and participate in a Q&A session prior to the screening of the Rolling Stones documentary Shine A Light that kicks off the 2008 Coca-Cola Summer Film Festival. $7. Thurs., June 5. Mini-concert begins at 7 p.m. Screening at 7:30 p.m. The Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. 404-881-2100. www.foxtheatre.org.

He looks more like a college professor than the keyboard player for the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band. Chuck Leavell's off-stage résumé backs up his look: conservationist, author, forest land manager and environmentalist, headquartered out of Macon's Charlane Plantation, a hunting preserve and tree farm he and his wife Rose Lane have lived on and run since 1981.

But don't let Leavell's scholarly demeanor fool you. Since 1982, Chuck Leavell has toured and recorded with the Rolling Stones. Along the way, he found time to record with some of the biggest names in rock, including George Harrison and Eric Clapton. After the two-year "Bigger Bang" Stones tour ended in London in 2007, Leavell stayed behind to combine two of his passions, conservation and rock, putting together his own tour to raise awareness about environmental issues. The tour and ensuing live recording released in May, Live in Germany: Green Leaves and Blue Notes Tour 2007, doesn't preach, however. It's a rocking compilation of Stones classics ("Honky-Tonk Women," "Tumbling Dice,"); other classic covers, including George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun," and a nod to his Allman Brothers years with Dickey Betts' "Jessica"; as well as his own compositions.

But his main employer is still the Stones. He describes his role with the band as musical navigator. "I have to find that happy medium groove to keep everybody happy."

That includes standing up for himself when the Stones jumped in on a riff he came up with and was playing in the studio that became "Back to Zero" while recording '86's Dirty Work. After Jagger howled some impromptu lyrics, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie wandered in and started jamming along. Jagger scribbled some more lyrics down and wanted to record it the next day. Leavell told Jagger right away he wanted a writers' credit and Jagger agreed. "It was my goal to be very clear up front," Leavell says. "One of the reasons we have a good relationship is because it's up front, everything's on the table."

Leavell is used to defusing potentially prickly situations, as he proved in 1972 when he joined the Allman Brothers shortly after Duane Allman's death. "A lot of fans scratched their heads when they heard it was gonna be a piano player and not a guitar player," Leavell says. "Personally that helped me. I felt zero pressure because it was certainly not like I was replacing Duane Allman because I'm not sure that could ever be done." The pianist helped guide the Allmans in a new direction until their breakup in 1976, when he formed Sea Level.

Some tagged his follow-up band Southern jazz, but Sea Level was closer to thinking man's Southern rock. Leavell says Allman percussionist Jaimoe turned him onto Miles Davis, Coltrane and Ahmad Jamal. "There was an influence of jazz," he says, "but the influence was stronger from the blues and funk idioms."

Leavell's musical wanderings helped him land the Stones gig. "In '81, when they came to Atlanta they did an unannounced show at the Fox Theatre and Stones keyboard player Ian Stewart called me up and asked if I would be interested in sitting in." Leavell felt he aced the audition and was surprised when Faces keyboard player Ian McLagan was picked for the U.S. leg of the tour. "McLagan had been with the guys already, and he was a good friend of Ronnie Wood. I think there might have been a little bit of politics there," Leavell says with a chuckle. When the European leg started up in '82, Leavell got the nod and has been there ever since.

For the last 30 years, Chuck Leavell's piano has served as his passion and his pulpit, allowing him to pursue his conservation program while sharing timeless music on a worldwide stage.

"The resource of wood is the most precious resource we have: it's organic, natural, renewable. It cleans our air; it cleans our water. So many wonderful things come from the resource – like my piano," he says, laughing.

In Leavell's hands, that's a resource the Stones – as well as a legion of fans – would fight to preserve.