It's been 60 years since the first production models of the Les Paul
guitar ("a paddle with strings") were polished, tuned, put in their cases, and sent out the door of the Kalamazoo, Michigan factory bound for Mom and Pop music stores around the nation. Les' own production prototype (without a serial number) was sold at auction earlier this year for just under $200,000. There's is a special gleam in the eye of every guitar player when it comes to owning a Les Paul.
So for this anniversary, why not get in the holiday mood with a look back at Les' notorious collaboration with his old pal, Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester.
In the mid-'70s, Les and Chet got together to cut a record in Nashville.
Though the two were good friends (Chet's brother played with an early version of the Les Paul Trio 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"). Thanks to Elvis' hit, Chet became the head of RCA's Nashville office in 1956, opened famed 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, fostering a tight family of impeccable musicians who churned out hits night and day. Rock and roll had nearly killed country music and 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 would not be out played or out joked by anyone. He had been making history practically since he was a boy, tinkering with homemade crystral radio sets and jamming a Victrola needle into his acoustic guitar to make a pickup.
Les played lead 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' career had begun to fade into the background around the time Chet's career took off so there was a little competition between them as well as respect. 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. Les loved an audience and they loved him back.
As for Chet, he probably would have been just as happy if nobody showed up to interrupt his picking. 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 solid 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 the 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 Mr. Music City and Mr. Les Paul picking around the Christmas tree with a superb (what else?) rendition of "Avalon" playing what can best be described as prototypes of an Ultra III (Les) and an SST Studio (Chet). (Les would have been all over an Ultra III!) And check out the other clip from the Today show and Chet's super cool shades.