The former Allman Brothers Band pianist became part of the Stones’ lineup 40 years ago, having auditioned the previous year and believed 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 the audition,” Leavell told 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 along 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 to tour Europe next year, and everyone’s decided they want you.’ So that was when I first got the official position.”
But Jagger and Richards were butting heads by that point, 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 tension, making music was a process that they knew they had to complete. 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 speaks volumes about why we are celebrating 60 years of the Rolling Stones. They’ve always found a way to make it work, and at this day in time the band is closer than ever.”
Leavell was appointed the Stones’ musical director, a title from which he distanced himself. “I scoff at it a bit 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 started to translate into cues onstage. … If Mick’s 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 kind 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 kidding 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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