Chuck Leavell Chuck Leavell Chuck Leavell on his farm. (Photo: Fernando Decillis)

Rolling Stones' keyboardist excited for first trip to Israel

A candid conversation with Chuck Leavell about the legendary band and the most memorable cities he's played.

The Rolling Stones have been performing as a group for half a century, and keyboardist Chuck Leavell has been tickling the ivories for them since 1982. But, in all that time, the legendary rockers have never been to Israel. That's about to change when the Stones roll into Tel Aviv's HaYarkon Park on June 4 to play for what will surely be a sold-out, and very rowdy, crowd. From the Grapevine sat down with Leavell to find out what it's like touring with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and some of the other musical geniuses he's accompanied over the years.

From the Grapevine: You're going to be visiting Israel with The Rolling Stones during this tour.  Chuck Leavell: What a great opportunity for us. We love playing places for the first time and, in the band's over-50-year career, we have never been to Israel. So yes, we are all totally buzzed about going. For me personally, it is also extremely exciting as I've never been. I have many friends that have, and they all tell me how unique and wonderful it is, so I am very pleased and anxious to go.

Do you anticipate that Israel will remain on the schedule of regular tour stops from here on out now? Well, that's hard to say, but I would certainly hope so. Whether the Stones come back after this trip or not, I hope that I can return, perhaps with my own band or with another artist.

Chuck Leavell playing with the Rolling StonesKeith Richards and Chuck Leavell. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

You've been to so many different countries while touring. How refreshing is it to get to go to a new city for the first time? We've been so fortunate to play in many cities and countries all over the world with the band. We played a lot of former Eastern Block countries after the [Berlin] Wall fell - places like in Prague, Tallinn, Budapest, Zagreb, Chorzow, and others. We've played in Istanbul, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. Recently we played Abu Dhabi, Macau. So yes, we absolutely love going to places we've never been before and bringing some rock 'n roll into the picture.

What is the most unique city you've played in during your career and what is it about that city that really sets the live experience apart from the others? I can tell you that playing in Prague in 1990 was quite amazing. The posters all around town read: "Tanks Roll Out, Stones Roll In." We played to over 120,000 folks at that gig. The band got to meet Vaclav Havel, who had just been elected President. It was an amazing time.

Do you have a favorite city or country that you've stopped at while on tour? We've had so many wonderful times all over the world that it's difficult to pick just one, but I'll say that the first time the Stones went to South America it was quite incredible, as it reflected what it might have been like back in the days of "Stonesmania." Especially in Buenos Aires.

The Latin fans are so passionate and so enthusiastic. We arrived in Buenos Aires at something like 2 or 3 in the morning after a very long flight from Japan. Much to our surprise, there were some 3oo or 400 fans at the airport to greet us. As we made our way from the airport to the hotel, the fans followed us -- somewhat like a paparazzi chase -- leaning out the window of their cars, waving and yelling out to us, trying to pull right up beside us to get glances of who was in the various vehicles. When we arrived at the hotel, there was another couple hundred fans waiting on us there. They jumped on our cars, blocking the view of the drivers and covering the vehicles with their bodies. It was almost impossible to get up to the hotel entrance and into the building. Then, the whole time we were there there was always a crowd of fans outside the hotel hoping to get a glimpse of one of the band members at a window, on a balcony, whatever. When Charlie Watts or another one of the principals would poke their head out for a moment, the fans would break into their football chant: "Ole, ole ole oleeee….Charlieeee Charlieee!" It was crazy, but fun crazy.

Chuck Leavell playing with the Rolling StonesRonnie Wood, Mick Jagger and Chuck Leavell. (Photo: Chuck Leavell/File)

You've been playing with The Rolling Stones for more than 30 years. How has the experience of playing, recording, and touring with them changed for you (and for the band) throughout the years? I think it has been a natural evolution. Technology has made quite a difference. For me personally, as a piano player, the digital instruments have really come along. In the "old days" we would use a grand piano and use various techniques to mic it or put a pickup on it. But there were always problems with feedback, good tone, and trying to compete with the volume of the rest of the band. Today, I use a Yamaha CP 4 digital instrument. The sound is fantastic. It's an excellent re-production of a grand piano, several grand pianos actually, as there are a few different selections on the instrument to choose from. This eliminates the problems of using mics or pickups and allows the instrument to be heard clearly and cleanly.

The technology of the video screens has also played a profound part in the live presentation. The fans get great views of the band and, of course, there are lots of video effects that can be used. The lighting and sound systems have also come a long way.

In terms of the recording, digital technology has also made things a lot easier, especially in the editing process. In the "old days," you would have to cut the magnetic tape at just the right place, put it back together carefully and hope that the beats and chords involved pieced together smoothly. It took hours and hours of intricate and delicate work to do major editing. Nowadays, you see the waveforms on a video screen, pick the parts, cut and paste them, and voila! You are done in a matter of seconds or minutes.

How has it stayed the same? Hey, it's still rock 'n roll! We still play the same songs, new and old, with the same passion we did the first time. At the end of the day, it is still a live band, live playing, live singing. We might have some bells and whistles to enhance things, but it is still the same guys up there giving it all we got.

The Rolling Stones are one of the all-time classic rock bands and obviously fans always want to hear the classics when they go to a concert. Is there one song in particular that you love so much that you can't imagine ever getting tired of playing it? We never get tired of playing any of them, whether we're talking about the icons like "Satisfaction," "Jumping Jack Flash," "Start Me Up," and the like; or songs that are a bit more obscure like "Midnight Rambler" or "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." Our attitude is that you play it with the same energy every night. It doesn't matter that it might be the 941st time you've played it, or maybe the first time you've presented a new song to the audience. If we're not giving it 110% every time, we're not doing our job.

Chuck Leavell playing with the Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Chuck Leavell. (Photo: Chuck Leavell/File)

You've played with so many legends in the music business throughout your career and you're so passionate about your music and your environmental endeavors. What's the best advice you've ever received from someone you've collaborated with? Growing up in my household, old sayings were abundant. A couple that my dad used to say have always stuck with me. One is: "You make your own luck." That means a lot of things, like learning to be in the right place at the right time; or making sure that you practice enough so that you feel totally prepared when you go to play a song, or to give a presentation. Whatever it may be.

Another similar one is the "Five P's: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance." And another one I love is: "There is an art to everything," meaning that it doesn't matter if you are a bulldozer operator, a race car driver, a doctor, a lawyer, a baseball player, whatever; If you find the passion inside you and you do your best to be creative in your work, you will find the art of it and you will excel in your field.

What are you most proud of in your career? First and foremost, I'm proud of my family. But as far as my musical career, I suppose it is the fact that I've been able to play with so many different talented artists and musicians. It has been such a great joy to look across the stage and see Keith Richards on the guitar or Mick Jagger running by my keyboards or to be in the studio with John Mayer making a record or to be on stage with Gregg Allman, Dr. John, George Harrison. There have been so many great opportunities for me in my life that I am grateful for.

The Rolling Stones will perform their first-ever show in Israel on June 4th, at Tel Aviv's HaYarkon Park. Rami Fortis, an Israeli punk artist, will be the opening act.


Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows
Rolling Stones' keyboardist excited for first trip to Israel
With the Rolling Stones Israel concert set for June 4, keyboardist Chuck Leavell talks touring with the Stones and his long music career.