As we look forward to 2017 and the 60th anniversary of Epiphone joining the Gibson Family of Instruments, we turn the way-back machine to the mid 70s when longtime Gibson and Epi fans Les Paul and his old friend Chet Atkins got together to cut a record in Nashville, Chester and Lester.
Though the two had known each other for decades (Chet's brother played with Les' first professional trio and Chet's first good guitar, an L-10
, was a gift from Les), they each brought vastly different attitudes into the studio.
Chet was the consummate professional and the un-credited producer of the first record from Nashville to top the pop charts (Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel"). Chet became the head of RCA's Nashville office in 1956, opened legendary Studio B (which Chet designed over dinner on the back of a napkin) and helped to make Music City the powerhouse recording center it is today. Chet was a kind of foster father to a tight family of impeccable musicians who churned out country, rock, and pop hits night and day. Rock and Roll had nearly killed country music but Chet brought it back to life with a new sound that--like it or not--ruled the AM airwaves in the '60s.
Chet also had a hand in the careers of pretty much half of both the country and rock hall of fame including Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, the Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, and Connie Smith. If you got the nod from Chet--as did Vince Gill, Jerry Reed, and Mark Knopfler--you were a class act. If you didn't, you went back home.
Les, meanwhile, was the mad inventor who had seen it all, had it all, and had walked away from the business around the time Chet rose to prominence. Les's career began when he started tinkering with homemade crystral radio sets and jamming a Victrola needle into his acoustic guitar to make a pickup.
Les played the first bonafide guitar solo in a pop song on Bing Crosby's multi-million selling post-war hit, "It's Been A Long, Long Time," virtually invented multi-track recording, and encouraged the invention of a few handy devices like the solid body guitar, the humbucker pickup, the Bigsby vibrato, close mic-ing in the studio, the Fairchild compressor (designed in Les' living room) which became a trademark studio device for The Beatles, and of course, rescued Epiphone with a phone call to Gibson's Ted McCarty. Now Les didn't invent all of these things (and whether he truly was the engine behind the rescue of Epiphone is up for debate, too) he was a vital voice among a small group of creative minds like Gibson's Ted McCarty, Paul Bigsby, Seth Lover, and Leo Fender that together--often over beers and burgers--plotted how to make a superb electric guitar. But among all of them, Les was a superstar.
With his weekly television show with wife and musical partner Mary Ford, Les Paul was one of the first bigs stars of television in the 1950s. Les is the reason most non-guitar players even know what a guitar looks like. He had little use for formality of any kind and showed deference to no mortal except perhaps Django Reinhardt. Though Les' understanding of the complicated world of electronics was unparalleled among his musical peers, his performances were not tidy, flawless events. Les Paul's nightclub act was full of bawdy jokes and double entendres. He had a fierce desire to both entertain you and remind you that you were in the presence of someone who was a star when Chet Atkins was learning to pick on a guitar with action as high as his knee pants.
As for Chet, he probably would have been just as happy if he could stay at home and pick. When Scotty Moore arrived in Nashville with Elvis for their first session with RCA in 1956, Moore--who idolized Chet--asked what they should do. Chet's answer? "Just do what you've been doin'." You can read a lot into his legendary comeback to a fan who remarked "that guitar sounds wonderful" as Chet played. Chet stopped playing, put down the guitar, and asked the fan: "How does it sound now?"
When Chet and Les got together at Studio B in Nashville, Les refused to do more than one good complete take and insisted that they put out a "live" record, faults and all, so "people would know we're human." It's to Chet's credit he kept a tape machine running non-stop. Chester and Lester is unlike anything two mega-guitarists would put out today and belongs in every picker's library just for the banter alone.
So while you're trying to decide what color Les Paul Standard Plus Top PRO you want to buy yourself for the holidays, here's Chester and Lester in action around the Christmas tree with old pal (and admirer) Duane Eddy. We won't see the likes of these rascals again on television. Pretenders to the throne beware: these cats mean business.