Chet Atkins would have been 89 years old this month and it seems like a good time to look back on Chet's stellar collaboration with our other June birthday boy and guitar Godfather, Les Paul. Especially since we're featuring the Epiphone Les Paul Tribute Plus
In the mid-'70s, Les and his old friend Chet Atkins 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 RCA Studio B, home to hits by Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Elvis, and even "Battle of the Green Beret."
Chet was the consummate professional and the un-credited producer of the first record from Nashville to top the pop, country, and R&B charts (Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel") which made Nashville "Music City USA" overnight. Chet quickly became the head of RCA's new Nashville office and opened famed Studio B (which Chet designed over dinner on the back of a napkin), a small funky studio set in a woodsy neighborhood that helped to make Music City the powerhouse recording center it is today. Chet was the foster father of a tight family of impeccable musicians who churned out hits night and day.
Rock and roll had nearly killed country music and Chet (and fellow producer Owen Bradley) 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, well, it was back to the farm for you.
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. (For more on Les during his wilderness years, check out our interview with Lou Pallo.)
Les's career began when he started tinkering with homemade crystal radio sets (when Calvin Coolidge was President!) and jamming a Victrola needle into his acoustic guitar to make a pickup. Les--as we all know--played (gasp!) a guitar solo on Bing Crosby's multi-million selling post-war pop 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.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 plenty 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 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 which is right up there with the best of Homer and Jethro.
And all of us at Epiphone loved Chet because he was--after all--a great guy and one of the first to endorse Epiphone when it reemerged from the shadows with a blast of fresh ideas in the 90s. If he were here today, he'd be tinkering on new ideas right along side of Les.
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). And check out the other clip from the NBC Today show and Chet's super cool shades.