Chuck Leavell on Sea Level, ‘Cats on the Coast’ (1977)

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“Sea Level Rises Again…Allman Brothers Reunion Notwithstanding,” featuring an exclusive interview with ex-ABB (and future Rolling Stones) keyboardist Chuck Leavell about his band Sea Level and its second album, “Cats on the Coast,” was written by Stephen K. Peeples and first appeared in Rock Around the World magazine in late 1977.

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“Right now, I’m very much into Sea Level, and I don’t wanna have anything to do with it,” was the emphatic reply from ex-Allman Brothers Band keyboardist Chuck Leavell—now leader and chief mouthpiece of the ABB offshoot band—when asked about the latest reunion rumors. We conversed over the phone between his Macon home and mine in Los Angeles. “That’s something Gregg is trying to initiate, and while I’ve never counted a reunion completely out, now’s just not the time.”

Word got around a few weeks ago that Allman had flown to Macon to talk with Capricorn prez Phil Walden about it, and that the two of them had gone to see ex-Allman guitarist Dickey Betts, who was finishing his third solo album at Criteria Studios in Miami. As it turned out, only Walden and Allman were interested.

Betts wasn’t available for comment, but his manager Steve Massarsky—who was in Miami for the discussion—spoke for him. “Dickey put it to Phil and Gregg this way,” he began. “He said, ‘Look, I’ve got a new album coming out in March (1978, “Atlanta’s Burning Down”) and we’ll be touring Europe and the States. Let’s see how it goes. It’s just too early to tell.’ Dickey hasn’t closed any doors,” Massarsky continued, “but the timing just isn’t right.”

Like Betts (whose last album, “Dickey Betts & Great Southern,” has sold a respectable quarter million since its release last spring), Chuck Leavell and Sea Level are well into what looks to be a very successful career on their own. Sea Level’s second album, “Cats on the Coast,” has been out about two months now, and it’s met with twice as much FM and jazz airplay—and sales—than their debut has in the year since it came out. Sea Level’s road schedule is booked pretty solid for the next several months. For them, an Allmans reunion right now might be a big step sideways, even backward.

According to Leavell, the wounds left by Gregg’s damaging testimony at former ABB road manager Scooter Herring’s drug trial a couple of years ago have pretty much healed. Herring, in fact, has been Sea Level’s road manager for the last several months, out on bond pending an appeal for a new trial.

So Gregg’s ice-testing seems to be nothing more than poor timing. It’d probably be great timing for him, though—his checkerboard relationship with Cher has apparently died the last of many deaths, and that duo album they did just recently (“Allman and Woman,” November 1977) was met with critical catcalls and no sales. Gregg will have to wait, it appears, a long, long time for any ABB reunion.

Meanwhile, Sea Level continues to rise, developing its own blend of fluid instrumentals and funky rock and roll.

sea level
A promo photo of the Allman Brothers Band in 1973, about a year after Chuck Leavell joined the band for the “Brothers and Sisters” album, and about three years before their acrimonious split but ultimately temporary split in 1976. Clockwise, from left: Leavell, Gregg Allman, Lamar Williams, Butch Trucks, Jai Johanny Johnson (aka Jaimoe), and Dickey Betts.

We Three Plus Jimmy Nalls = Sea Level

The band was actually seeded back in ’73 during the Allmans’ “Brothers and Sisters” tour when drummer Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe for short) coaxed bassist Lamar Williams (who’d replaced the late Berry Oakley) and Leavell (who joined after Duane Allman’s death a year before Oakley’s) to jam during soundchecks and before and after sets. The three of them had a lot of fun noodling around, and the free-flowing ideas they came up with became the basis of Sea Level’s sound. In those days, as an in-joke, they called themselves “We Three.”

“Those ideas happened pretty much on the spot,” Leavell had told me when we first talked in L.A. a year ago (1976). “Later on, things got more structured—I started writing songs and we started working on them. But we didn’t get to play as much as we wanted to as a trio. If we weren’t on the road, we were doing sessions,” he said, referring to Gregg’s “Laid Back” and Dickey’s “Highway Call” albums and tours, which kept them busy from mid-1973 all the way into the beginning of ’75.

After the final ABB “Win, Lose or Draw” album and tour, the band split in early 1976, so We Three started looking around for a guitar player to complement their rhythm section. Jimmy Nalls was finally settled upon—he and Leavell had worked together years before as members of Alex Taylor’s Friends and Neighbors. With Nalls, We Three became Sea Level.

Sea Level
Promo photo of the first Sea Level lineup, 1976-77: Lamar Williams, Chuck Leavell, Jaimoe, and Jimmy Nalls.

As the ABB had done in the late ’60s, the new group hit the road to tighten up their act before recording their first album. Sea Level played a lot of college dates during ’76 and early ’77, especially up and down the East Coast and in the South, gigging for students who’d paid to be guinea pigs. As it turned out, most people thought it was pretty exciting to watch an offspring band test its wings. “They seemed to really appreciate how the music was developing,” Leavell recalled last month. “The people were out there listening really hard, and we appreciated that. It made us work even harder.”

Sea Level cut its first album a little more than a year ago with jazz-oriented producer Stewart Levine (Crusaders, etc.) at Capricorn in Macon. The quartet’s musicianship was pretty tight by then, but if Sea Level’s diverse material could have an identity, it was still unfocused. The album got only moderate airplay—rock stations thought it too jazzy and jazz stations thought it wasn’t jazzy enough. In any case, the album satisfied enough people to keep them solvent and in a healthy position to grow.

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Sea Level’s debut album surfaced on Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records, also the Allman Brothers Band’s label, in early 1977.

Probably the main beef critics had, including this one, was that Sea Level’s sound was a little too sparse with only four players. The band likewise felt the need for a wider range of instrumentation, more material, and more voices. When it came time to do the second LP, they didn’t have to look very far.

Sea Level Expands to Seven

Last summer, after the first Sea Level tour, Leavell contacted Randall Bramblett, a songwriter/singer/keyboardist/saxist/guitarist he’d met back in ’74 during the “Laid Back” tour.

“He was playing with Cowboy, the band that opened for us on that tour,” Leavell said, “and during Gregg’s set, he was playing horns, too. We got to know and respect each other’s ideas, and later he asked me to play on a couple of solo albums he did after Cowboy that Alan Touissant produced (“That Other Mile” and “Light of the Night” on Polydor). Randall continued on as a solo artist after those albums though with only mild success.

“When I talked to Randall last summer, he didn’t give me an instant answer, but a couple of weeks later decided to join. He’s a strong counterpart in the band because he plays a host of instruments, sings, writes, and generally balances out the band’s sound a lot. He plays about half the keyboard parts on the new album.”

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The back cover of Sea Level’s “Cats on the Coast” album, Capricorn, 1977.

For the first Sea Level album, guitarist Nalls did a lot of overdubbing to get the harmony lines they wanted, and while he’s no slouch, they all knew a guitar partner for him would open up a lot more possibilities. Enter Davis Causey, who also writes and arranges.

“Davis and Randall sort of come as a team,” Leavell noted. “They’ve been together off and on over the last 10 years. Davis studied music in college, taught guitar for a while, and played in Waylon Jennings’ band for a time in the early ‘70s. Davis and I had worked together on a couple of obscure albums with producer Paul Hornsby (ex-Hour Glass keyboardist and Charlie Daniels’/Marshall Tucker Band’s producer), and we did well together. At that time, Davis was in Randall’s band, so I knew they were a good team. He plays a Telecaster, and his style is different, so it’s easy to tell who’s playing what when he and Jimmy (Stratocaster and Les Paul) are dueling.”

Rounding out the current Sea Level lineup is drummer George Weaver, who was called into the picture by Jaimoe and Lamar. “George has a very heavy R&B background,” Leavell said. “He’s played with Otis Redding—that’s where Jaimoe knew him—and Bobby Bland and Tyrone Davis, too. We kinda stole him from Tyrone, actually.”

Weaver plays all the drum parts on the new album, and while he’s able to play rolling, looser jazzy instrumentals nearly as well as Jaimoe, Weaver’s style is somewhat more punchy. His addition may just be the anchor the original rhythm section needed. Jaimoe plays all the congas and a lot of the percussion on “Cats on the Coast,” but he’s no longer a touring member of Sea Level because heavy tour schedules make his chronic back problems very uncomfortable.

“He’ll always be a member of Sea Level,” Leavell said emphatically, “even if it’s only for the albums. This band would be nowhere if he hadn’t started us jamming way back when.”

sea level

Sea Level’s ‘Cats on the Coast’ – The Tracks

With its new seven-man lineup, Sea Level has been infused with a great deal of new writing ability, instrumentation, and vocal strength. The new album’s tracks are evenly divided (four each) between vocal and instrumental tracks, and though there are a couple of weak spots on it, as a whole it’s better than the first LP. They’re definitely not through assimilating all the new possibilities, but at least they’re on the right track to a strong identity.

The lyrics to “That’s Your Secret,” the bouncy, driving tune that opens the album, written by Randall and Davis, are particularly thoughtful as they speak of self-preservation:

“In spurts we live
Still soft from birth
Like an invisible shield surrounds us
But we’re vulnerable and lonely
And we’re knowing one thing only
When we do it one time
We want to do it again
And when we see it one time
We want to see it again and again and again…”*
*©1977 Stoned Individual Music Co. – BMI

Sparked by hot guitar harmony lines by Nalls and Causey and extended keyboard soloing by Leavell and Bramblett after the verses, “That’s Your Secret” is one of the album’s standout vocal tracks. It was a wise choice for a single, much wiser than “Shake a Leg” (from the first LP), which died a deservedly rapid death.

“Randall used to do that one in his live sets,” Leavell said, talking about “That’s Your Secret.” “It has the kind of beat and lyric that just intrigue me. He’s the only college graduate in the band—he double-majored in philosophy and religion at the University of Georgia. I think his approach to writing lyrics really reflects a lot of the ideas he explored and is still exploring.”

“It Hurts to Want It So Bad” (one of the two songs from outside the band) smacks of mid-’60s Southern R&B, or what we used to call soul music back then. Derivative, yes, but credibly done—it’s a bumping track propelled by hot charts by the Muscle Shoals horn section, no less.

“Storm Warning” (written by Leavell) is the album’s first jazzy instrumental piece, and it’s arranged with a lot of intricate changes threading together some dynamic piano, ARP, guitar, and soprano sax solos.

“That was my attempt to write a suite,” Leavell offered. “It took a long time to write, and we were experimenting with it right up to the take that’s on the album. It’s one of those tunes that I’d have liked to spend one more day on, you know? But it’s developing even more in our live sets.”

Side One’s closing track “Had to Fall” is a funk ‘n’ roll vocal number written by Nalls, Williams, and Bramblett. Leavell characterizes it as “just a nonsense tune, and it’s funny because sometimes the simplest tunes are the hardest to pull off. That was the first song we started and the last one we finished. That’s why it gets a little crazy at the end.” One of the album’s few weak spots.

Neil Larsen’s exuberant “Midnight Pass” kicks off the second side, and it’s basically a two-chord vamp for extended soloing, connected by a simple but very catchy melody line played in harmony by piano and guitar. The alto, piano, and guitar solos flow easily out of the melody line, building in intensity and eventually floating back to earth. A standout instrumental track.

“Every Little Thing” (a Bramblett) composition is somewhat slower-paced with a punchier rhythm. It’s an attempt at a little Macon reggae, and the verse pleads with one’s love partner for a little communication, a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t. While Bob Marley may not go for it, “Every Little Thing” is a pretty good vocal track.

“Cats on the Coast” (penned by Causey), which Leavell claimed has nothing to do with West Coast hipsters, was really inspired by Bramblett’s cat, Luigi Fellini. Right.

“Davis and Randall were camping on the beach and Luigi was along,” Leavell began, “and they thought it’d be a great idea to do a film starring Luigi. A few days later Davis came around with this tune, exclaiming it’d make a perfect soundtrack for the film. Davis later came up with that funky little guitar riff that starts us all off on a call-and-answer thing. We once considered calling that section ‘Gulls on Acid.’ We still might.” Another very strong instrumental cut.

Closing out the album is the fourth instrumental track, “Song For Amy,” which Leavell wrote for his toddler daughter. It’s short and sweet.

“I wanted to do something a little light and airy,” he explained, “because sometimes we can get a little intense. We called in the best string quartet the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had to offer, and those guys couldn’t play the parts, man, I just couldn’t believe it! When we went to L.A. to mix the album at Hollywood Sound, we hired some local cats and they knocked it out in about an hour.”

As a whole, “Cats on the Coast” stands up better than Sea Level’s first album but it’s still marked by the band’s growing pains. The strongest points are the instrumentals, but the new vocal tunes carry more weight than tunes such as “Country Fool” from their first album. As they grow, it’ll be interesting to watch their identity take a more definite shape.

The main difference between the two albums is that while the first may have been too sparse, “Cats on the Coast” may be a little too busy in some places.

“Yeah, we did talk about that,” Leavell conceded, “but if someone made that criticism of the album, I would take it in stride. There is a lot going on in a couple of places, but I think that’s good in a way, too. This was a pretty raw situation with the addition of the new guys. We were all excited and we wanted everybody to play their hearts out, man, hold nothing back. It goes wild in a couple of places, but I think it’s a good, raw wildness that’s healthy and creative. It’s a legitimate attempt to express ourselves.”

Evidently so, judging by the response the first couple of months it’s been out. While this writer is pleased to hear Sea Level’s growth, it’s only until the next album comes out, and hopefully, it’ll be a live LP. Meanwhile, “Cats on the Coast” makes Sea Level’s musical salt-water intrusion quite pleasing to the ears.

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Special thanks to Mark Pucci and Rory Aronsky.

Chuck Leavell, Chip Carter, and Toy Caldwell hang at Great American Food & Beverage after the Marshall Tucker Band-Sea Level concert at the Santa Monica Civic in Santa Monica, California, on May 11, 1977.

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A note from Leavell on 4/10/23: “Fun read….seems like only yesterday! Thanks, Chuck.”


Stephen K. Peeples is a Grammy-nominated multi-media writer-producer and award-winning radio/record-industry veteran raised in Miami and Los Angeles by career newspaper journalists and music lovers. He was a freelance music journalist when he wrote the story above; in 1976-1978, he contributed reviews to the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, and Performance, and features to Circus, Rock Around the World, Rocky Mountain Musical Express, Picking Up the Tempo, RePlay, and Music Retailer. Based in Santa Clarita, California, he wrapped a 45-year media career in April 2021. As of spring 2023, he is co-authoring a new book with artist and pop-culture legend John Van Hamersveld commemorating the 60th anniversary in 2023-2024 of Hammer’s iconic poster for Bruce Brown’s epic surf movie “The Endless Summer.” And Peeples is developing an art book/biography, “Boyd Elder, Artlaw: The Greatest Artist You’ve Never Heard Of,” about the artist who created the skull art for three classic albums by the rock group Eagles and much more (due in 2024-25). See the “Stephen K. Peeples” page on his website. Read and watch more original stories and exclusive interviews there and on his YouTube channel.


Article: Chuck Leavell on Sea Level, ‘Cats on the Coast’ (1977)
Category: News and Reviews, Blasts from the Past
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Article Source: stephenkpeeples.com