- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

“Whaaaat?” Chuck Leavell, longtime keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, reacts to an astonishingly unartful edit on the Stones’ most recent release, the concert tour souvenir “Live Licks.”

The band is transitioning out of the slinky, half-time bridge of the song “Rocks Off.” The rhythm goes wobbly and then ” “Whaaaat?” ” mix-man Bob Clearmountain sends at least 30 seconds of the original recording down a memory hole.

How could product like that, in this day and age of slick digital airbrushing, be rushed so carelessly out the door?

Such is the plight of the proverbial sideman: He’s always the last to know.

Of course, there’s the corollary silver lining: It’s never his fault.

Mr. Leavell is the definitive sideman, having played piano and organ for the likes of the Allman Brothers, George Harrison and countless other artists over 30-plus years in the business. He landed, and has maintained, his role within the Stones by effortlessly amalgamating the styles of Stones piano men past ” the boogie-woogie of founding member Ian Stewart, the melodicism of Nicky Hopkins and the bluesy gospel of Billy Preston.

His playing graces songs you’ve heard a hundred times ” Eric Clapton’s “Unplugged” version of “Layla,” the Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels,” Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” ” without ever having given a second thought to their recording personnel.

Like the perfect White House speechwriter, the perfect sideman has a passion for anonymity.

“I’ve always just wanted to be a guy in the band,” Mr. Leavell says. “I’ve never really wanted to be a leader. I’ve been forced into that position a few times in my career” ” most notably with the critically appreciated but commercially luckless Sea Level ” “but my preference is to work behind the artist, with the artist.”

The face of rock music wouldn’t look much different without sidemen such as Mr. Leavell, but it sure would sound a lot different. In the sideman business, “you have input,” Mr. Leavell explains with a kindly Alabaman drawl, “but it’s their record. It’s their name.”

Some of rock’s most indelible moments are the work of sidemen, most of whom stay in the shadows, some of whom go on to achieve fame of their own. Sidemen have been around for as long as bands have been around; they’re part of the warp and woof of modern popular music.

Jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian was a prodigy within the Benny Goodman stable. Funk bassist Bootsy Collins was stuck behind James Brown, a notorious credit-hogger, before George Clinton gave him a more prominent role in Parliament.

A key test of an indelible sideman contribution is this: You shouldn’t be able to imagine a song without it.

Think of Al Kooper’s Hammond B-3 organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Listen to an early, waltz-like version of the song on Mr. Dylan’s “Bootleg Series” boxed set; it sounds emasculated without Mr. Kooper’s touch.

Think of every Chuck Berry song on which pianist Johnnie Johnson played.

What would Neil Young’s “Southern Man” be without Nils Lofgren’s chugging piano chords? The Beatles’ “Get Back” without Mr. Preston’s electric piano solo? John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and the Who’s “Getting in Tune” without Mr. Hopkins’ gentle tunefulness? The Stones’ “Brown Sugar” without Bobby Keys’ wonderfully sloppy saxophone solo? Or Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” without Waddy Wachtel’s propulsive staccato guitar riff?

The great sideman pitch-ins should be so gigantic as to nearly warrant a co-compositional credit, as with Mr. Leavell’s galloping piano solo on the Allman Brothers Band’s instrumental hit “Jessica.” Mr. Leavell recounts in his recently published memoir “Between Rock and Home Place” that Allman Brothers’ singer-guitarist Dickey Betts once sent word through a mutual friend: “Tell Chuck that ‘Jessica’ is as much his song as mine.”

(By the same token, a sideman who starts snagging partial writing credits ” as, for example, legendary Stax house guitarist Steve Cropper did on classics such as Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” ” passes beyond the status of true sideman into another category, populated by mixed types such as renowned blues composer and Chess session musician and producer Willie Dixon.)

Certain sidemen, read drummers, play parts that may not immediately pop out in high relief, but their stamps are singular nonetheless. Jim Keltner was the go-to drummer for artists such as Mr. Dylan, Ry Cooder and the Traveling Wilburys. Kenny Aronoff’s drumming galvanized many of John Mellencamp’s early hits.

The downside of being a sideman is manifold: less fame, less cash, less job security.

Mr. Leavell nearly gave up on music in the early-‘80s, after the demise of Sea Level and all manner of difficulties with the Macon, Ga., label Capricorn Records. He briefly considered farming full time, as he and his wife had acquired a tree plantation outside Atlanta.

Then he got a call from the Stones camp; full-time farming could wait.

Is it possible that sidemen ” with exposure to a variety of professional stimuli, but few of the personal hassles that come with celebrity ” have more fun than rock stars themselves?

“Absolutely,” Mr. Leavell says. “I’ve got no complaints. It’s been a heck of a ride so far, and it ain’t over yet.”

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