As we look forward to a new decade, it seems like a good time to turn back the Epiphone time 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.
The guitar phenoms had been friends for decades. Chet's older brother Jimmy played in Les' first professional trio. And Chet's first good guitar--an L-10
--was a gift from Les. Though the pickers had much in common, they were starkly different personalities which quickly became evident in the studio.
Chet was the consummate low talking professional. As the un-credited producer of Elvis Presley’s major label debut "Heartbreak Hotel" for RCA Records in 1956, Chet became the face of Nashville overnight when Elvis’ single became a runaway hit reaching #1 on Billboard
's Pop, Country, and R&B charts, the first #1 record to reach the pop charts out of Nashville. Though behind the scenes it was evident to everyone on the session that Elvis was fully in charge of his music, everyone differed to Chet’s ear and impeccable musicianship. RCA’s New York-based Vice President of A&R, Steve Shoals, realized that if he didn’t hire Chet, another label might come in and scoop him up. Shoals wisely decided it was time to open an RCA office in Music City and put Chet in charge of Artist and Repertoire (A&R)—a king maker who decided who got a record deal and who went back to the plow. RCA commissioned two studios in a quiet neighborhood not far from downtown and through Chet's influence, the area became a hive of recording studios and publishing houses nicknamed Music Row.
Nashville's new RCA Studio A followed the template of the label's grand studios in Chicago, New York, Hollywood, Rome, and London, and was spacious enough to hold a full orchestra. For Studio B, Chet suggested that since most of Nashville’s best musicians preferred to record using "head" arrangements--collaborating on feel and tempo in an open, free wheeling discussion--a smaller studio might be better for Country & Western sessions. With Chet’s request in mind, RCA engineer Bill Miltenburg quickly drew up a design on a paper napkin over a "meat & three" lunch at Haps’ diner for what would become RCA Studio B, just a few steps from Studio A.
Throughout the late 50s and 60s with engineer Bill Porter behind the board and Chet producing from the floor, dozens of big hits would come out of RCA Studio B 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.” For many analog fans, Chet's productions rank among the very best sounding
records ever made.
The success of Studio B 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 (who took over Decca Records), served as foster fathers to a rowdy, hard brawling, but 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 under Chet’s calm stewardship and unflagging support for songwriters like Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton, Nashville acquired a new identity that ruled the AM airwaves in the 1960s.
Chet supported the careers of over a dozen members of both the Country and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but rarely took the credit. (And he certainly didn't need to.) Everyone in Nashville knew that if you got the nod from Chet--as did Vince Gill, Jerry Reed, and Mark Knopfler--you were a class act suitable for the big time. 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, southern gentleman couldn’t possibly be the guitarist idolized by both George Harrison and Segovia.
Les Paul, on the other hand, was never quiet. He was not a team builder-type of fellow who shunned the spotlight and preferred to work behind the scenes. Les knew he was a star—the Zelig of pop music. Just ask him. Les claimed to knew everyone who was ever worth knowing. Jimmie Rodgers? Les attended one of his sessions as a boy. Charlie Christian? Why they were close buddies and were each gifted Gibson’s first two electric amplifiers. Jimi Hendrix? Les claimed to have first seen him play a club in New Jersey out by the airport in the early 60s. Stereo recording? Les imagined stereo a full decade before Bing Crosby bought him his first tape recorder. And who could argue with him?
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." Les was
In the 1940s in his garage studio in Los Angeles, Les dreamed up the concept multi-tracking, first recording direct to multiple lacquer disc recorders and then to magnetic tape. Les encouraged the invention and marketing of his namesake solid body guitar, the Les Paul
. His techniques in the studio, like close mic-ing and "stacking" guitar parts by recording the same part three or four times, 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 indispensable studio device for Frank Sinatra, The Beatles and Radiohead. And of course, Les also takes credit for rescuing Epiphone from oblivion with a timely phone call to Gibson's Vice President Ted McCarty.
Of course 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' achievements as an engineer, musician, arranger, and hit maker. It’s impossible to imagine Western popular music existing as it does today without Les Paul’s loud and vital voice. Les was there when Paul Bigsby, Merle Travis, and Leo Fender got together (usually over beers and burgers) to plot the design of a solid body electric guitar and the future of the business. He was a true Renaissance man, a 20th Century superstar, and he wasn’t shy to tell you so. And of course from 1952 forward, Les Paul only played a Les Paul
guitar. Chet, too 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 a Les Paul
looks 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. If you attended one of Les' weekly nightclub performances in Manhattan (a gig Les maintained until his passing), you would have heard bawdy jokes and double entendres along with fret blazing (and irreverent) versions of his classic hits. To his very last night on stage, Les showed a fierce desire to entertain while also reminding 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 loved to be adored and always had a story to tell, Chet would have been happy if he could just 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 1980s and remarked, "That guitar sounds wonderful!"
Chet stopped, 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 Lester is 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 and Gibson Brands loved Les and Chet. They were big supporters of Epiphone in the 1990s when the House of Stathopoulo first re-emerged from the shadows. If they were here today, you can bet that Les would be playing a Masterbilt Century
(equipped with his own re-built electronics) while Chet provided accompaniment on a CE Coupe
with a Shadow® Panoramic HD Pickup System.
While you're trying to decide what you want from the Epiphone 2019 Buyer's Guide
, 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.