When the 1976 lineup of the Allman Brothers Band dissolved in a haze of drugs, solo careers and Cher, members Jai Johanny "Jaimoe" Johanson (drums), Chuck Leavell (keyboards), and Lamar Williams (bass) quickly formed this group after adding guitarist Jimmy Nalls. The trio had already been opening Allmans shows as "We Three" with a fine fusion of southern rock, jazz and blues, often with just instrumentals.
The name comes from a pun on leader Leavell's name. In 1977, Sea Level released its self-titled debut, which featured groovy rhumba jazz ("Rain in Spain"), Meters-style singalong funk ("Shake a Leg"), classic-rock/jazz fusion ("Tidal Wave"), and swampy Allmans sounds ("Nothing Matters But the Fever"). The group started to gain some popularity, particularly in venues like the Montreaux Jazz Festival.
The band added singer/multi-instrumentalist Randall Bramblett (to step into the frontman slot) and guitarist David Causey for 1978's Cats on the Coast, which featured similar, segues into pop/rock ("That's Your Secret"), Southern sounds ("Storm Warning") and jazz ("Midnight Pass"). George Weaver contributed some drums to this release. Back problems would sideline Johanson, who would then return to the reconstituted Allmans, and Joe English took his stool for On the Edge.
But each record seemed to lose a bit from the previous efforts, and 1979's Long Walk on a Short Pier would get yanked from official release due to problems with the band's label, Capricorn (the rare record would get a CD unveiling in 1998). The band's brand of music was too jazzy for rock audiences at the time, and too rock for the jazzbos. A last effort the next year, Ball Room, proved the the tide had gone out on Sea Level.
Why Should I Care?
Sea Level was literally a band ahead of its time. Its brand of sonic fusion would have fit perfectly into today's jam-band scene and even smooth-jazz radio stations. And though the piano-tinkling/sometime-singing Leavell was the de facto leader, the band's ensemble approach did not raise its profile in a time when bands fronted by superstar singers and guitarists got the lion's share of attention and sales.
Where are They Now?
Leavell enjoys a hugely successful career as an in-demand session player, including long stage and studio tenures with Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones - the latter of which have taken him on the road for the past quarter-century. Most interestingly, he became an ardent environmentalist, spokesperson and honest-to-God tree farmer living outside of Macon, Georgia.
The published author has also penned a nonfiction study on American forests, a children's book (The Tree Farmer), and a mostly musical memoir (Between Rock and a Home Place). His first solo release was 1998's What's In That Bag? and his most recent last year's double-CD Live In Germany: The Green Leaves and Blue Notes Tour.
Johanson was fired from the Allmans in 1980 shortly after rejoining because of playing limitations due to his back injury. He went back into the fold in 1989 and is now (with Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks) one the remaining original members. The group continues as a hugely popular live act, and last released a studio CD in 2003 with Hittin' the Note. They've also released scores of vintage and contemporary live recordings since then, and will embark on a 40th anniversary tour this year.
Williams was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1981, believed to have been contracted by exposure to Agent Orange during his U.S. Army tour in Vietnam, and died in 1983. Nalls worked with artists like Dr. John and T. Graham Brown. He learned that he had Parkinson's Disease in 1995, but released Ain't No Stranger in 1999. He writes and records at home.
Bramblett continues to tour and record both as a solo artist and with other acts, and his seventh solo CD was last year's Now It's Tomorrow. English got born again, fronting the Christian-rock Joe English Band in the '80s. He is no longer involved in music. Leavell, Bramblett and Causey occasionally play gigs as Sea Level.
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Sea Level, 1977
The Best of Sea Level, 1990: single-disc compilation of the best tracks off the first four records.
Between Rock and a Home Place by Chuck Leavell