Chuck Leavell lends life and light through the keys | MARK HUGHES COBB

Mark Hughes Cobb
Mark Hughes Cobb

Chuck Leavell accomplished more by the age of 20 than I'll probably do in my entire life.

No wait, let's start again. This was meant to be a "My job is more interesting than some" rant.

OK. Last week I got to talk again with Chuck Leavell, a pianist who can make those keys, hammers and strings ring like friends laughing, smokestack lighting, spring breezes fading away to rain, a cacophony of birdsong, happy tears or joyous dogs barking out of car windows, or whatever sounds light up your cerebellum, making you long to create a time machine, then go back and tell your begrudging-piano-lessons-self to practice, dangit, guitars aren't the only things that rock 'n' roll.

I've been fortunate to meet Chuck before, as he grew up here, and maintains friendships. His schedule is such that the benefit he played for the Phoenix House, a Tuscaloosa rehab center, had to fall on a Tuesday night in September, because he might have other gigs coming up, like the ongoing − 40 years now − spot onstage and in studios with The Rolling Stones.

Make all the gags about leathery-faced Barney Fife lookalike Jagger all you want, and about how we need to be thoughtful with how we treat this earth, for the benefit of our great-grandchildren, nuclear-irradiated cockroaches and Keith Richards, but there's gotta be something in the water (possibly Jack Daniel's) keeping these guys limber, alive, loud and raucous.

Chuck will beat you to it:

"Nothing kills Keith."

Maybe he was kidding. A little. However he said it, the sentiment was clearly warm. Chuck talks about those particular famous bandmates − he first stepped onto vaster stages as pianist with The Allman Brothers Band, shortly after Duane died − being the veritable cardiovascular system of rock 'n' roll. Though a few Stones have passed on − tragically, the drummer's drummer Charlie Watts, just last summer, and much earlier on, troubled Brian Jones − the core of the group still tours, 60 years on, though maybe hitting 20 or 30 stadium dates a year instead of 150 or 200 arenas.

For subscribersHow Chuck Leavell went from Tuscaloosa bar bands to the Rolling Stones

Bill Wyman retired in '93, though because he perfected classic bass man stance − back, and to the left; utterly unmoving − a lot of folks could be forgiven for not noticing when Darryl Jones stepped up in his stead. Ronnie Woods joined 47 years ago, after a short stint by Mick Taylor, who took the other guitar slot after Jones died; not to be confused with Dick Taylor, original bass player, who went on to found Pretty Things.

Keyboardist Ian Stewart was a crucial founding member, but was encouraged to step aside, though still touring and recording, once the band signed manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who strategized about image, wishing to portray anti-Beatles, "... a raunchy, gamy, unpredictable bunch of undesirables," threatening, uncouth and animalistic. Oldham de-aged the players, pushing them as a gaggle of skinny teen-agers; Stewart apparently looked too old for Oldham.

And besides, he said, five's the right number. Kids can't count to six.

What the.

I mean.

What?

Anyway, changes Oldham wrought seem to have worked, because some still think of the Stones as down 'n' raunchy, despite the fact that Sir Michael Phillip Jagger grew up comfy middle class, attending the London School of Economics before leaving to front the Stones. Their supposed rivals, John and Paul, actually grew up in much tougher family situations. After the fledgling Beatles' two-year residency in Hamburg, playing several-hour gigs between, around and behind strippers, experimenting with substances to stay awake, their edges were plenty rough.

But the Stones: Bad boys, yeah? In reality, they're genuinely sweet, Chuck says, and sure, maybe he's one of those folks raised with the sort of spirit that sees only the best in folks, but hey, he knows them, and we don't.

Chuck is almost a decade younger than the Stones founders, but while his hair has gone white, his face, voice and hands don't look much different than they did 10 or 20 years ago, and from archival photo evidence, not much different than decades further, when he was playing the downtown YMCA with the Misfitz, and on the Tuscaloosa takeoff of "American Bandstand." While still in his teens, he took off for recording sessions, touring gigs with Alex Taylor and Dr. John, which Chuck called his college education.

He caught the ear of Gregg Allman, who added the kid to his first solo disc, "Laid Back." After Duane's tragic motorcycle accident, the Allman Brothers Band rolled forward with the 1973 "Brothers and Sisters," a pure classic, as bold and lovely a statement of life-goes-on as captured on record, benefitting from barely-20 Leavell bringing new light.

There's one everyone recalls, even if you don't know the title, as it's an instrumental, no lyrical hook to hang your hat on: "Jessica." Guitarist Dickey Betts, stepping up in Duane's absence, gifted the band's jazz-blues a twangier edge, writing the bulk of the material, including what would be the Allman Brothers Band's only hit single, "Ramblin' Man." Inspired by hero Django Reinhardt, Betts wrote licks while then-infant daughter Jessica bounced along to the rhythms. It capers along like the happiest road trip you ever took, and once the band had run it a few times, Chuck improvised a solo that lifted it to another − wait for it − level.

I had to.

It starts in three-part harmony, with Betts picking the riff, Chuck playing high harmony on the electric Fender Rhodes piano, and bottom harmonics by Gregg on Hammond organ. If you really want to dig in, there's an instructional video on YouTube, titled simply "Chuck Leavell - Jessica − Piano Instructional DVD." That's a master class in not only inspired soloing, but in listening to bandmates, finding parts and counterparts that turn base metals into precious alloys.

It isn't until two and a half minutes in − the album version runs 7:30 − that the song climbs to a point where Chuck takes flight. On the video above, he explains that the solo was improvised, the right take found after days of band rehearsals. He played the solo on grand piano, rather than the more ringing, reverb-heavy Rhodes. It's an iconic excursion, akin to George Harrison's bluesy, surging solo on "Something," such that Chuck had to re-learn it, because fans want to hear that thing note for note. When he plays "Jessica" now, whether solo or with a group − Look for the vid where Chuck's sitting in with Widespread Panic in 2015 − he plays it as recorded, because otherwise: Sadness.

The song's wide-open skies feel wildly unlike earlier Allman Brothers Band instrumentals, which tended to follow Duane's slide into darker textures. In a sense, Chuck set tone and tenor for the Allman Brothers' next five years of evolution.

Listening to "Jessica" reminds me of things: FM radio when it would play album cuts that weren't pop hits, blaring out tinny speakers across the Dothan Elks Club − Sucker me, I believed BPOE meant Best People on Earth − pool. It calls to mind big brother Randy, and his meticulously maintained vinyl and reel-to-reel collection, played over lovingly assembled components through which you could feel music, the breath, percussion, the over- and undertones.

And I hope this doesn't offend Chuck, but it makes me think about Charlie Brown, specifically the animated shows from the '60s, which in my mind, and probably that of everyone anywhere near my vintage, are inextricably linked to the piano of Vince Guaraldi, especially his rumbling "Linus and Lucy," the tinted by the leaves-falling-on-frost airiness of "Christmastime is Here," and his strolling arrangement of "What Child Is This?"

Synesthesia first came to my attention while researching Edgar Allen Poe, whose Roderick Usher suffered from an overly intense cross-firing of senses. I've long seen Saturdays as chocolate in texture, taste and hue, tasted certain foods as geometric shapes, and heard printed words as if sung, but that's a mild case.

Want to know what it's like? Listen to a genius pianist like Chuck or Vince. Free your mind. Senses will follow.

Reach Tusk Editor Mark Hughes Cobb at mark.cobb@tuscaloosanews.com, or call 205-722-0201.

This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Chuck Leavell lends life and light through the keys| MARK HUGHES COBB