Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Leavell is a mostly self-taught musician. He started on piano, learning some basics from his mother, Frances Leavell. The Leavell family moved from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama when he was five, then back to Birmingham for a few years, finally settling in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1962. He learned to play guitar from his cousin, Winston Leavell, and played tuba in junior high for two years. He started his first band, The Misfitz, in 1966. The Misfitz played a steady gig at the YMCA every Friday night, and eventually were the band for a Saturday morning television show, Tuscaloosa Bandstand. After the breakup of the Misfitz, Leavell did session work, and found himself on his first gold record, a single by Freddie North called "Don't Take Her She's All I've Got". Leavell also sought out other local Musicians to play with and joined The South Camp in 1968. That band included his early mentor, Paul Hornsby, who had played in The Hour Glass, a precursor to The Allman Brothers Band.
In 1969, Hornsby moved to Macon, Georgia to work for Capricorn Records as a studio musician and Producer, eventually producing such artists as The Charlie Daniels Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and others. At Hornsby's suggestion, Leavell came to Macon and helped form Sundown, which recorded one record on the Ampex label in 1970. That band broke up shortly thereafter, and Leavell found himself doing session work at Capricorn and eventually was tapped to tour with Alex Taylor, James Taylor's elder brother. Leavell recorded one record with Taylor, Dinnertime, which was released in 1972. Leavell continued to tour with Taylor for a short time afterwards. When Taylor had a falling out with his manager and the founder of Capricorn, Phil Walden, and quit touring, Leavell found himself playing with Dr. John. Leavell claims this was his "college education."
While playing with Dr. John, Leavell caught the attention of Gregg Allman, who tapped him to play on his first solo album, the Johnny Sandlin-produced Laid Back. Allman and Sandlin introduced the rest of the Allman Brothers Band to Leavell, and Leavell joined the band in September 1972, when they decided not to recreate their dual lead guitar sound after the death of Duane Allman, who had died the previous October, but rather to use a different instrument as the second lead. Leavell's work was most prominent on the band's popular 1973 album Brothers and Sisters, and in particular on the heavily played instrumental "Jessica." However, only one studio album, 1975's Win, Lose or Draw, followed, again with Leavell's ebullient piano and keyboard work featured, but with the band in chaos, and on the brink of destruction.
In 1973, Leavell married Rose Lane White, who was working as a staff member at Capricorn Records. The Allmans toured heavily behind Brother and Sisters, playing stadiums and breaking records for attendance in many venues across the country. Leavell also appeared on a live record with the band, Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas during this era as well as subsequent compilations, live performances and re-releases in later years. During the mid-1970s Leavell also appeared on Dickey Betts's first solo record, Highway Call. In addition during this time, he made multiple contributions on several other Capricorn artists' recordings like Bobby Whitlock, Bonnie Bramlett, The Marshall Tucker Band, Cowboy and more as well as recordings outside the Capricorn family with Tim Weisberg, Charlie Daniels and others. The Allmans found themselves in turmoil in 1976, and broke up that year. Later the band re-formed, but without Leavell as he had moved on to form his own band, Sea Level in late 1976.
While opening shows for The Allman Brothers Band with The Allman Brothers' bass Guitarist Lamar Williams and Drummer Jaimoe, Leavell stepped up as a frontman for the first time in his career. After The Allman Brothers Band disbanded in May 1976, the trio added Guitarist Jimmy Nalls and set about touring behind the moniker Sea Level, derived from Leavell's first initial and last name. The group lasted five years and released as many albums, each featuring a different configuration of the group.
In addition to his musical career, Leavell is a tree farmer in Twiggs County outside Macon, Georgia, an occupation that began when his wife, Rose Lane Leavell, inherited land in the early 1980s. Together they created Charlane Plantation, now a 2500-acre award-winning Tree Farm and hunting preserve. The Leavells are two-time Georgia Tree Farmers of the Year, and were selected as National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year in 1999. They are staunch supporters of sustainable forestry, conservation and environmental protection. Chuck wrote his first book, Forever Green: The History and Hope of The American Forest in 2000. His autobiography, Between Rock and a Home Place was published in 2005, and is acclaimed as one of the best rock autobiographies ever published. In 2006, Leavell wrote a children's book, The Tree Farmer. His most recent book is Growing A Better America: Smart, Strong, Sustainable (2011, with J. Marshall Craig), the theme of which is "smart" growth. It has been called one of the best "common sense environmental books of all time".
Leavell's first encounters with The Rolling Stones were auditions on Long View Farm for the spot of piano player alongside Ian Stewart for the Rolling Stones 1981 United States tour. Even though Ian McLagan was chosen, Leavell guested at the Rolling Stones' Atlanta gig on October 26, 1981. For the 1982 European Tour Leavell landed the position of keyboardist alongside Ian Stewart. Leavell continued to record with the Stones on their next two albums, during a time when the band was not touring. After Stewart's death in 1985, Leavell occupied the role of the group's keyboardist by himself, with the exception of the addition of Matt Clifford on the Steel Wheels record and tour. He has continued to tour and record with The Rolling Stones ever since, as well as recording with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on solo projects. The Stones' most recent studio recording was in 2012, Doom and Gloom. He continued to go on tour with The Rolling Stones, as of 2006, as part of their record-grossing A Bigger Bang Tour. He served as the unofficial "musical director" for the band and devised each night's set list with Mick Jagger. "It's my job to keep Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie all happy", Leavell stated on his web page.
Leavell enjoys "giving back" to the community of his birth. In 1992, he played on a record titled "Mr. President", which was produced by noted Birmingham jazz keyboardist and vocalist Ray Reach for the purpose of raising money for the homeless in the Birmingham area. Leavell and several other well-known Alabama Musicians (including Wayne Perkins, Chuck Tilley, Charlie Hayward, and Kelley O'Neal) donated their time for this project.
In 2003, Leavell participated in the annual improvisational musical experiment known as Zambiland Orchestra in Atlanta.
Leavell was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2004. He is also a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. In an April 2007 radio interview on WOR-AM, Leavell said his three favorite contributions to songs in his career were "Jessica" with The Allman Brothers Band, "Old Love" on Eric Clapton's Unplugged, Out of Tears on The Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge, and Drops of Jupiter by Train.
Leavell was appointed by former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to the Georgia Land Conservation Council in 2008. He has also served on the Boards of The American Forest Foundation, The United States Endowment for Forestry and Communities and other influential non-profits and makes frequent trips to Washington, D.C. to discuss forestry and environmental policy matters with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. In February 2012, the same month he received the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, he was given an Honorary Forest Ranger award from the United States Forest Service. He has stated that he reveres both of these honors equally.
Leavell and Joel Babbit are the co-founders of The Mother Nature Network, an environmental news and information website that launched in January 2009. The site has grown to be the most visited independent environmental website in the world. Leavell serves as Director of Environmental Affairs, and sits on the board of Directors for the company. He hosts two video series on mnn.com: "Love of the Land," in which he discusses sustainability and conservation issues, and "In The Green Room," a series in which he interviews fellow celebrities about the environment and their philanthropic work.
In 2011, Leavell played on John Mayer's album Born and Raised which was released in May 2012, reaching Number One on the Billboard Chart.
In February 2012, he and the other existing members of the Allman Brothers Band received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to his time in the band from 1972-1976, Leavell performed two shows with the reunited Allman Brothers Band in 1986. Since 2001, he has performed as a guest Pianist at more than a dozen Allman Brothers Band concerts, including multiple shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City.
In 2013, Leavell was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the 'Pinetop Perkins Piano Player' category. Leavell is the Celebrity spokesperson for Sealevel Systems, Inc.