As we celebrate both Chet Atkins' and Les Paul's birthdays in June, we turn the way-back machine to the mid 70s when Les and his old friend Chet got together to cut a record in Nashville, Chester and Lester.
Though the two were good friends (Chet's brother played with Les and Chet's first good guitar, an L-10
, was a gift from Les), they 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 also the foster father to a tight family of impeccable musicians who churned out 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 guitar on Bing Crosby's multi-million selling post-war hit, "It's Been A Long, Long Time," invented multi-track recording and encouraged 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 device for The Beatles, and of course, rescued Epiphone with a phone call to Gibson's Ted McCarty. Along with Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, Les was '50s tv and the reason most non-guitar players even know what a guitar looks like. Les 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, his performances were not tidy, flawless events. A night with Les at a club was full of bawdy jokes, double entendres, and most of all, a fierce desire to entertain you while also reminding you that you were in the presence of someone who was a star when Chet was learning to pick on a guitar with action as high as his knee pants. Check out Les' surprise appearance in this fascinating and hilarious film on Capitol Records featuring Mr. "Bugs Bunny" himself, Mel Blanc, the immortal "Wanna Buy A Record"
Les loved an audience. As for Chet, he probably would have been just as happy if nobody showed up to interrupt him. 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 the two 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 here's Chester and Lester in action. We won't see the likes of these two rascals again. Pretenders to the throne beware: these cats mean business.