As we look forward to a new year and throw 2018 aside with our eyes set on 2019, it seems like a good time to turn the Epiphone way-back machine to the holiday season of 1976 when longtime Gibson and Epiphone fans Les Paul and his old pal Chet Atkins released their first-ever duet album, Chester and Lester. Though the two had been friends for decades (Chet's brother played in Les' first professional trio and Chet's first good guitar, an L-10, was a gift from Les), Chester and Lester were starkly different personalities, which was quickly made evident in the studio.
Chet was the consummate, quiet professional and the un-credited producer of Elvis Presley’s "Heartbreak Hotel," the first record from Nashville to top the pop charts. (Though Elvis was clearly in charge during the session, everyone deferred to Chet's musicianship and discerning ear.). After the runaway success of “Heartbreak Hotel” put Nashville in the spotlight in 1956 (it topped the country, pop and R&B charts), RCA’s New York-based Vice President of A&R Steve Shoals decided it was time to open an office in Music City and put Chet in charge. RCA the commissioned two studios in a quiet neighborhood not far from downtown, and through Chet's influence 16th avenue soon became known as Music Row after Decca, Mercury, and other labels opened their own offices nearby.
RCA Studio A followed the template of RCA studios in Chicago, New York, Hollywood, and London, and was spacious enough to hold a full orchestra. Chet suggested that since most of Nashville’s best musicians didn’t use formal charts and preferred to use "head" arrangements--collaborating on feel and tempo--a smaller studio might be better for Country & Western sessions. With Chet’s request in mind, RCA engineer Bill Miltenburg drew up a quick design on a paper napkin over a "Meat & 3" lunch at Haps’ diner for what would become RCA Studio B, just a few steps from “A”.
Throughout the late 50s and 60s, with engineer Bill Porter behind the board and Chet producing from the floor or from the booth, RCA Studio B would produce dozens of American classics including Eddy Arnold's "Make the World Go Away," the Everly Brothers' “Wake Up Little Susie,” Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” and Elvis Presley’s under-appreciated 60s singles like “Little Sister,” “It’s Now Or Never,” and “Guitar Man.” Studio B’s success helped to make Music City the powerhouse recording center it still is today. Chet, along with friend, producer, and fellow Music Row real estate investor Owen Bradley, each served as a foster fathers to a rowdy, hard brawling, and tight knit family of impeccable musicians who churned out country, rock, R&B, and pop hits night and day. Rock ‘n’ Roll had nearly killed off country music but Chet’s calm manner and unflagging support for songwriters like Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton, gave the genre a new identity that--like it or not--ruled the AM airwaves in the '60s and made a lot of people a lot of money.
Chet had a hand in the careers of pretty much half of both the Country and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame including Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, the Everly Brothers, 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 turned back toward home. “You’re pretty good but you’re no Chet Atkins” became a frequently-heard critique for would-be guitarists. And even Chet was told a few times that he, too was ‘no Chet Atkins’ by unsuspecting street critics who assumed the tall, laconic, low-talking southern gentleman couldn’t possibly be the guitarist idolized by the likes of George Harrison and Segovia.
Les Paul, on the other hand, was anything but quiet. He was not a team builder-type of fellow who shunned the spotlight and preferred to work behind the scenes. Les was a star—the Zelig of pop music—who knew everyone and had played everywhere. Jimmie Rodgers? Les attended one of his sessions as a boy. Charlie Christian? Why they were close buddies and were given Gibson’s first two guitar amplifiers. Jimi Hendrix? Les claimed to have first seen him play a club in New Jersey out by the airport in the early 60s and started telling everyone he knew. Stereo recording? Les imagined stereo a full decade before Bing Crosby bought him his first tape recorder.
Les had been an inventor since age 10, tinkering with homemade crystal radio sets and forging his first guitar pickup by jamming a Victrola needle into an acoustic guitar to amplify the vibrations. Les invented the harmonica holder, too out of a wire hanger. Les played the first bona fide guitar solo in an American pop song in Bing Crosby's multi-million selling post-war hit, "It's Been A Long, Long Time."
In the 1940s in his garage studio in Los Angeles, Les dreamed up multi-track recording, first recording direct to lacquer disc and then to magnetic tape. Les encouraged the invention and marketing of his namesake solid body guitar, the Les Paul. Les’ techniques in the studio, like close mic-ing and doubling and tripling guitar parts, soon became standard in rock ‘n’ roll. The Fairchild tube limiter (vintage models now go for over $50,000) was designed in Les' living room and became an indespensible studio device for both Frank Sinatra and The Beatles. And of course, Les also takes credit for rescuing Epiphone from oblivion with a timely phone call to Gibson's Ted McCarty.
Now Les didn't invent the solid body guitar or the guitar pickup or the guitar solo. And whether he truly was the engine behind the rescue of Epiphone is up for debate, too. What is not up for debate are Les Paul’s achievements as an engineer, musician, arranger, and hit maker. It’s impossible to imagine American or British popular music existing as it does today without Les Paul’s loud and vital voice. Les was there when Paul Bigsby, Seth Lover, Merle Travis, and Leo Fender got together (usually over beers and burgers) to plot the design of a solid body electric guitar. Les was a true Renaissance man, an honest-to-God superstar, and he wasn’t shy to tell you so. Les Paul played a Les Paul guitar. Chet also had his own signature guitar but was often too shy to complain to Gretsch about their shaky quality control after the arrival The Beatles put the company's factories under stress.
But it wasn’t just musicians who loved and admired Les. In the 1950s, Les’ weekly live television show with wife and musical partner Mary Ford made him one of the first stars of the new medium along with Milton Berle and Lucille Ball. You might say that Les is the reason a generation of non-guitar players even knew what one looked like. Mr. Les Paul had little use for formality of any kind and showed deference to no mortal except Django Reinhardt. Though Les' understanding of electronics was unparalleled among his musical peers, his performances were not tidy, near-flawless events. Well in to the 1990s (and into his 80s), Les Paul's weekly nightclub act in Manhattan included bawdy jokes and double entendres along with fret blazing (and irrevennt) versions of his classic hits with Mary Ford. To his very last show, Les showed 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.
While Les adored being adored and always had a story to tell, Chet 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 replied in his typical phlegmatic manner: "Just do what you've been doing." You can read a lot into Chet's legendary comeback to a fan who came upon Mr. Atkins leisurely picking away at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville in the 1970s and remarked, "That guitar sounds wonderful!" Chet stopped playing, put down the guitar, and replied: "How does it sound now?"
So when Chet and Les got together at Studio B in Nashville in May 1976 to cut a few jazz and pop standards, Les refused to do more than one 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 throughout the session (otherwise, he might not have had a record, let alone a follow-up). Chester and Lesteris unlike anything two mega-guitarists would release today and belongs in every picker's library just for the banter alone which is right up there with the best of Homer and Jethro.
All of us at Epiphone loved Les and Chet. Together, they were big supporters of Epiphone in the 1990s when the House of Stathopoulo first reemerged from the shadows with a blast of fresh ideas. If they were here today, you can bet that Les would be tinkering with the PRO-1 Humbucker and the Masterbilt Century electronics while Chet provided accompaniment on a CE Coupe with a Shadow® Panoramic HD Pickup System.
So while you're trying to decide what color Les Paul SL you want to buy yourself for the holidays, check out 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 or anywhere else. Pretenders to the throne beware: these cats mean business. Thanks to the Country Music Hall of Fame for the historic pics.