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The Allman Brothers Band’s Chuck Leavell Talks “Jessica” 50 Years Later

How The Allman Brothers Answered Tragedy with the World’s Happiest Song

Jan 30, 2024
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Few songs are such masterpieces of mood as “Jessica,” a seven-minute plus instrumental by The Allman Brothers Band, off their 1973 album Brothers and Sisters. A pure sonic sunrise, raw dopamine molded into black vinyl, the track is classic rock’s answer to the “Ode to Joy”; it dares you to not smile, and wordlessly insists that life is good—even if only because of music like this.

Beethoven proves an apt (if unlikely) reference point for the Southern rockers’ work on “Jessica,” which entered the Billboard charts 50 years ago this month. For the Allmans operate here as an orchestra, letting none of its members go unnoticed: We begin with Les Dudek’s galloping acoustic guitar, promptly echoed by Chuck Leavell’s equally exuberant piano. Then Dickey Betts comes in with the principal electric guitar riff, which grins its way up the neck and ultimately into a new bridge riff, buttressed by Gregg Allman’s shimmering organ. The acoustic guitar reasserts itself at the breakdown—only now, we’ve also got Jaimoe’s congas. A rhythmic reinvention. The arrangement is, indeed, symphonic: a celebration of a full ensemble’s war chest of musical textures. And we haven’t even talked about Leavell’s and Betts’ solos yet.

But before we do, it’s worth taking a moment to note what we don’t hear in “Jessica”: principally, the inimitable siren wail of Duane Allman’s slide guitar, his namesake band’s trademark sound. That’s because, in 1971 and 1972, The Allman Brothers suffered a pair of deadly tragedies which were eerie and awful even by the morbid standards of classic rock’s heyday. First, Duane died after sustaining massive internal injuries in a motorcycle accident. Less than 13 months later, the band’s bassist Berry Oakley crashed his own motorcycle—just blocks from where Duane had crashed his—and then died of cerebral swelling. Both men were 24 years old.

What we don’t hear, in “Jessica,” is any hint of this tragic backdrop.

The song is named for the daughter of Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts, who suddenly found himself alone on the instrument after years in rock’s most formidable fretboard tandem. Betts was searching for a song, and trying to write one in the style of Django Reinhardt, when Jessica—a toddler at the time—wandered into his sight. It’s her sense of play that the acoustic guitar recreates at the song’s opening, with those jaunty strums bouncing like a child’s ball.

Chuck Leavell (Courtesy of Allen Farst)
Chuck Leavell (Courtesy of Allen Farst)

A child at play was “certainly the image that was in my mind when I was doing the solo,” says Chuck Leavell, who joined The Allman Brothers in 1972 (a year after Duane’s death) as the band’s first full-time pianist. Music, for Leavell, contains not only sounds, but also colors; in an interview with Under the Radar, he explains that “Jessica” is “bright colors: yellow, pink, those kind of colors. Maybe some soft ones as well,” he continues, “a light green or something. But nothing harsh like a deep red or black. Lively, happy colors.” Incredibly, those colors have not faded even slightly with time. Leavell’s piano solo is an astonishing achievement: a mini-opera of question and answer, tension and release, all building to a swaggering climax that just begs you to open the roof and step on the gas. Leavell was 21 years old when “Jessica” hit; it launched a career in which he would play on everything from Eric Clapton’s Unplugged to Train’s “Drops of Jupiter”—and go on to become The Rolling Stones’ musical director. (Leavell has toured with the Stones since 1982 and will head out on the band’s Hackney Diamonds tour later this year.)

“The piano solo in ‘Jessica’ is one of the greatest pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life,” says actor Billy Bob Thornton in the 2020 documentary Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man. Chuck, Thornton explains, “plays another song within the song.” The euphoric peak, no less—though Betts’ guitar solo will also make your insides tingle.

The thing that astonishes me most about “Jessica,” however—more than any of its bravura musicianship—is that it exists at all. I was relieved to find that I am not alone in feeling that it is the sunniest piece of music I’ve ever experienced. “It’s the happiest song I’ve ever heard,” said the band’s producer Johnny Sandlin in One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. “It still makes me smile every time I hear it.” Alan Paul, author of One Way Out and, later, Brothers and Sisters, concurs, writing: “‘Jessica’ is a contender for the world’s happiest song, reflecting its origins.”

Which begs the question: What of those other origins? Granted, you have to dig into Allman-ology to even be aware of any tension here between the festive and the morbid. Once you do, however, the irony is unmissable—another famed Allman Brothers instrumental, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (also penned by Betts), literally takes its name from a tombstone in the Macon, Georgia cemetery where the band once practiced and wrote together (and where Duane and Berry would be laid to rest). And yet, the ghostly “Elizabeth Reed” predates “Jessica” and both of the band’s twin tragedies. Duane even did some of his most famous work on the track.

I find that there’s value in listening to “Jessica” as a piece born in grief, even if it wasn’t written about grief (on the contrary, in fact). When I first revisited the song with Duane’s and Berry’s deaths in mind, I heard more than its familiar melodies and virtuosity. I heard proof of how great artists—and great art—can leap off of the page, or canvas, or keyboard, and actually transform reality. A group of musicians in need of uplift quite literally conjured it. That they did so without the aid of words or images speaks to music’s strange witchcraft as an art form, and to The Allman Brothers’ particular brand of sorcery as players. It also speaks to their wisdom. At the time, the band’s decision to not replace Duane with another guitarist may have seemed counterintuitive—the abandonment of the sound that made them stars. In reality, it was their way of accepting that he had no replacement; denying that fact would have only emphasized his absence. “I would like to think that having a different instrument, having myself at the time inject my style and myself into those sessions and eventually into the Brothers and Sisters record—I think it livened things up,” Leavell says. “I think it took them to a place where they could have fun again, where they could get away from the heaviness of the loss.” Betts said something similar in 1973 to a young Rolling Stone reporter named Cameron Crowe: “I think replacing Duane would have been one of the most uncreative morbid moves anyone could make.” (Crowe’s experience reporting on the Allmans as a teenager partially provided the inspiration for Almost Famous.)

The Allmans reinvented themselves. And really, at its core, “Jessica” may be more about reinvention than joy, per se: a child restarting the circle of life, a song that evolves musically from section to section, a world that grows brighter while both of them play.

www.chuckleavell.com

www.allmanbrothersband.com

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