Born Chester Burton Atkins, 20 June 1924, Luttrell, Tennessee
The importance of Chet Atkins can hardly be overstated. As a guitarist he is one of the most recorded instrumentalists in music history and he was an influence on countless pickers, from Duane Eddy to George Harrison. As a producer he was the key architect of the 'Nashville Sound', a smooth, polished style that made country music acceptable to a wider audience, at a time that the overpowering surge of rock 'n' roll was threatening to sweep it under. Many hit records that he produced during his days at RCA are now classics. Yet, country music was always only part of what Atkins did. He also recorded jazz, folk, pop, Latin American and classical music. (Check out his amazing Bach performance at the bottom of the YouTube list below.)
Atkins grew up in the hills in a tiny, remote eastern Tennesssee town called Luttrell. His father was an itinerant music teacher, his mother sang and played piano and his half-brother, Jim Atkins (twelve years his senior), was a professional guitarist. Chet watched Jim play the instrument and at five he started playing an old ukelele. Apart from his brother, Chet's main influences as a guitarist were Les Paul, Django Reinhardt and, most of all, the finger-picking style of Merle Travis. Chet never had guitar lessons as such ; he would watch and listen to other guitarists and work out licks for himself. A shy, sickly child, Chet suffered from severe bouts of asthma that left him plenty of time to sit quietly with his guitar. He also mastered the fiddle, but the guitar was always his favourite instrument.
By the time he left school in 1941 he was an accomplished guitarist and started performing on radio WNOX in Knoxville, TN. During the 1940s he moved from one radio station to another, before finally settling in Nashville in 1950. He made his first record in 1946 for the Bullet label ("Guitar Blues"/ "Brown Eyes Cryin' In the Rain") and was signed to RCA in 1947 by Steve Sholes, as a singer and guitarist. Of the eight songs recorded during his first RCA session on August 11, 1947, five were vocal numbers with Chet singing and three were instrumentals. Though all were eventually released, none of them made a splash on the charts. It was soon apparent that Chet's prowess with the guitar far exceeded his vocal capacities.
Next, Atkins worked as a guitarist for Homer & Jethro, then the top country comedy duo, before teaming up with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters in 1949. The Carters and Atkins were offered a slot on the Grand Ole Opry in 1950, which they kept for several years. Before moving to Nashville in 1950, Chet had received assurances from music publisher Fred Rose that he could make use of him on sessions. Sure enough, Rose employed Chet on several MGM recordings with Hank Williams ("Cold Cold Heart", "Jambalaya", "Kaw-Liga" et al.). Steve Sholes also used Atkins as a session man and soon as a supervisor of Nashville RCA sessions when Sholes couldn't get away from the New York office. Meanwhile, Chet's own recording career was gradually picking up steam. In 1953, RCA issued Chet's debut album, a 10-inch release called "Gallopin' Guitar", the first of a long series. Early in 1955 he scored his first country hit with a cover of the Chordettes' pop hit "Mr. Sandman" (# 13), soon followed by "Silver Bell" (# 15), a guitar duet with Hank Snow. The next year he played rhythm guitar on the first two number one hits by Elvis Presley, "Heartbreak Hotel" and "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You". Moreover, 1956 brought Atkins his first pop hit, with his version of "The Poor People Of Paris" (# 52). He also began to design guitars for Gibson and Gretsch.
In 1957 he was promoted to head of operations of RCA's Nashville division and he moved his work to the legendary RCA Studio B. Among the many acts he produced during his RCA years are Hank Snow, Jim Reeves (whose "Four Walls" became the first Atkins-produced # 1 country hit, mid-1957), Don Gibson, Eddy Arnold, Hank Locklin, The Browns, Floyd Cramer, Bobby Bare, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed and Waylon Jennings. He also supervised the sessions of several rock & rollers at RCA, like Janis Martin, Ric Cartey, Milton Allen, Roy Orbison and Hoyt Johnson. And even though the Everly Brothers recorded for another label, Cadence, Atkins played on most of their early hits as well.
In the late 1950s Chet pioneered the 'Nashville Sound'. Fiddles and steel guitars went out the window and were replaced by vocal choruses (usually The Anita Kerr Singers or The Jordanaires), electric guitars and (sometimes) pop string sections. This helped the Nashville industry recover quickly from the onslaught of rock n roll. Atkins also offered his own instrumental take on rock & roll with three consecutive singles in 1959-60 : "Boo Boo Stick Beat" (# 49 pop), "Teensville" (# 73 pop) and "Slinkey". Throughout the 1960s, while running RCA's Nashville office and producing many country stars, Atkins still managed to turn out two or three albums per year. No less than sixteen of these LP's made Billboard's Top 200 albums list in the sixties, the most successful being "Chet Atkins' Workshop", peaking at # 7 in 1961. A reworking of Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax" called "Yakety Axe" was a major country hit in 1965 (# 4 ) and has become one of Chet's best-known tunes.
RCA promoted Chet to vice president in 1968. Having had ample opportunity to make his solo artistic statements, Atkins turned increasingly during the 1970s to collaborations with other guitarists : Jerry Reed (two LP's in 1970- 1971), Merle Travis (the Grammy-winning LP "The Atkins Travis Traveling Show", 1974), Les Paul ("Chester And Lester", 1976 ; Guitar Monsters, 1978) and Doc Watson (1979).
Chet retired from his RCA vice presidency in 1981, and in 1982, after more than 70 studio albums, he amicably concluded 35 years with the label to record for Columbia. Frequent collaborations with younger players, such as Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits ("Neck And Neck", 1990), reflected his desire to remain contemporary.
Atkins has won nine Country Music Association awards and 14 Grammy awards, more than any other artist in country music. In 1973, at 49, he was the youngest person to be inducted into the Country Hall Of Fame. He was honoured with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 1993. Chet Atkins died in 2001, at the age of 77, following a long struggle with cancer. The next year he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, as a sideman.
Official website : http://www.misterguitar.us/
Book : Chet's autobiography, "Country Gentleman" (Chicago : Regnery, 1974, 225 pages), is no longer in print, but second-hand copies can still be found.
Discography / sessionography :
More compact releases are "Chet Atkins, Guitar Legend : The RCA Years" (2 CD's, 50 tracks, 2000) and "The Essential Chet Atkins" (2 CD's, 40 tracks, 2007). The collaborations with Jerry Reed (3), Les Paul (2) and Mark Knopfler are all worthwhile.
Acknowledgements : Paul Kingsbury, Rich Kienzle, Edward Morris, Wikipedia
Dik, February 2012
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