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06.18.09

A Rolling Stone's Second Act

Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell is jamming with Jimmy Fallon's band, farming trees, and launching an environmental Web site. Lloyd Grove catches up with the musician-turned-eco-activist as he prepared to play with The Roots on Late Night.

How cold was it in Jimmy Fallon’s studio?

It was soooo cold before Wednesday’s taping that Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who had been booked to sit in with Fallon’s house band, The Roots, complained that his fingers were starting to stiffen.

“It’s kept at 50 degrees,” a staffer for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon informed him.

“It is bloody freezing!” Leavell marveled—his husky voice combining Georgia, where he resides, Alabama, where he was born, and the British empire of rock’n’roll, from which he makes a handsome living. “I guess that’s the way these talk-show hosts like it. But it’s not good for me. Not good for these hands. I would say it’s unnaturally cold. It’s like being in Chicago at a Bears game.”

“The caviar’s comin’” Chuck exulted. “We’re sittin’ in high cotton!”

The ambient temperature is of more than personal interest to the shaggy-haired, gray-bearded Leavell. He’s leveraging his status as a rock legend (having been a member of the Allman Brothers in the early 1970s at the height of their popularity, recorded with Eric Clapton and George Harrison, and toured with Mick and Keith since 1982) into a campaign to turn the planet green.

The 57-year-old Leavell is a country boy. He lives with his wife, Rose Lane, on 2,500 acres of wooded paradise just outside Macon—where they host quail hunters, farm trees, and otherwise savor the great outdoors—and recently founded the Mother Nature Network Web site, MNN.com, which offers the latest in environmental news and encourages ecologically responsible behavior. The Atlanta-based operation boasts a good-size staff of journalists and some blue-chip corporate sponsors, including Dell, AT&T, and MillerCoors—the idea being to present sophisticated notions about global warming and energy policy in ways that civilians can understand, sort of environmental science for idiots.

So Chuck—a friend of mine for the past decade, ever since I dubbed him “the Bono of Trees” in The Washington Post (a nickname later appropriated without credit by that shameless thief Jagger)—came to New York to plug his Web site, meet with potential investors, and drum up more sponsors.

And, yes, dip his magic fingers into the Darwinian waters of network television.

Chuck had rushed to Studio 6B at 30 Rock direct from La Guardia, luggage in tow, to rehearse with The Roots, the Grammy-winning, Philadelphia hip-hop fusion band fronted by percussionist and music director Ahmir Thompson, aka Questlove; rapper Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought; and lead guitarist Kirk Lloyd Douglas, aka Captain Kirk.

“We just had a very brief rehearsal and it’s really going extremely well,” Chuck told me as he took off his gray T-shirt and put on a camera-ready deep-purple shirt and a very expensive Missoni black crepe jacket cadged from the Stones’ Bigger Bang Tour. “We get to keep our wardrobe at the end of every tour,” Chuck explained his dressing room, where NBC had graciously put out an unbelievably fabulous spread of chips, carrot slices, celery stalks, cherry tomatoes and some sort of pasty-white dip. “The caviar’s comin’” Chuck exulted. “We’re sittin’ in high cotton!”

A few minutes earlier, he had displayed his cheesy game-show-theme chops during a rehearsal of “Lick It for Ten,” a sketch in which Fallon flashes 10 bucks to induce audience members to run their tongues along various objects—which hardly seems a prudent activity during a swine-flu pandemic. Chuck and The Roots had also run through a couple of Stones' standards, “Miss You” and “Honky Tonk Woman,” plus one of Chuck’s original tunes, “Tomato Jam,” to perform during the breaks.

“Who’s the publisher of ‘Tomato Jam?’” asked a show staffer concerned with rights.

“That’s me—I’m the publisher,” Chuck answered, to the staffer's relief.

“Do you need the lyrics to ‘Honky Tonk Woman?’”

“No, I don’t need ‘em,” Chuck answered with a laugh, not mentioning that he has sung that song before thousands of people thousands of times.

But the highlight, for Chuck, was when Fallon bantered with him at the top of the show and plugged his Web site to 2.4 million viewers.

“You’re a legend. You’re a good man. You’re also the founder of the Mother Nature Network,” Fallon said.

“And I know you guys do some great things to be green, to have a green show,” Chuck replied, “so thanks for doin’ that, man.”

“I haven’t washed my suit since we started,” Fallon claimed.

The songs went without a hitch, and the audience cheered as Chuck took a bow. All in all, a worthwhile trip to the big city.

“Awesome,” Captain Kirk told Chuck when it was over, giving him a hug. “Hey man, when’s the next gig?” Chuck asked. “It really was a gas.”

Chuck brandished a black marker to autograph drumsticks for Questlove and Fallon, and then headed out into the New York night to warm up and grab dinner. He even considered staying up late to watch himself on TV.

“I’m a tree farmer, so I’m usually in bed by 8:30,” he explained.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.