Born Chester Burton Atkins, June 20, 1924, nearLutrell, TN; son of James Arley (a music teacher, piano tuner, and evangelical singer), and Ida (maiden name, Sharp) Atkins; married Leona Pearl Johnson (a singer), July3, 1946; children: one daughter, Merle. Addresses: Addresseses: Record Company Columbia Records, 51 West 52nd St, New York, NY 10019.
Chet Atkins may have first made his mark in country music, bu this legacy has spread far, his style influencing jazz, blues, and rock guitarists. Atkins' jazz-tinged country guitar once got him dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry, the premier showcase for country music. His style turned out to be so influential, though, that he became the youngest person ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He earned the honor in part because of his work as a producer, which some say kept country music from being overrun by rock and roll in the 1950s. More important, though, was his unique style of playing, which earned him the nickname "Mr. Guitar."
Born June 20, 1924, near Luttrell, Tennessee, Chester Burton Atkins grew up in a poor rural area amid a variety of musical influences. The son of a classically-trained gospel singer, Atkins avidly listened to the sounds around him, as he explained to Billboard magazine, "[I]f anybody came through the area playing something I didn't know, I'd steal it, take it over, and make it my own." His first instrument was a ukulele, which he strung with wire from a screen door. He also learned to play the fiddle, and when he was nine, he traded a gun for a guitar. Besides learning classical music from his father and gospel from his neighbors, Atkins learned other styles from listening to the radio. He taught himself guitar trying to imitate what he heard,especially the finger picking style of Merle Travis. He didn't realize that Travis played with just his thumb and one finger, so from reading his father's classical music magazines, Atkins learned to play with his thumb and three fingers, which became his signature style.
Atkins started playing professionally on radio stations while still in high school. He dropped out of school and played at several radio stations throughout the country during the 1940s. Although there always seemed to be work for him, he would frequently get fired for mixing in jazz with his country. He earned a brief stint with the Grand Ole Opry in 1946, and also cut his first record that same year for Bullet records. Atkins didn't stay put in Tennessee, though, and Steve Sholes of RCA records had to track him down in Denver, Colorado to sign him to a contract in 1947. He received some attention for such songs as"Canned Heat" and "Bug Dance" from his first sessions. In 1949,though, Atkins established an audience for his style with "Main Street Breakdown."
Atkins' stature as a solo artist continued to grow with the release of two albums in 1951. He continued playing as a session man, though, recording with country music legend Hank Williams, among others. Atkins' effective suggestions in the studio earned him a position as producer. In that role he specialized in recordings that relied more on string arrangements than on fiddles and steel guitars, which brought country music to a new audience. Atkins also had a keen ear for talent, and he was the first to sign such future country stars as Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson to recording contracts. Speaking of his success as a producer to Noel Holston of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Atkins said, "It's not that I'm so smart or anything, it's that I'm a square."
Atkins' production work didn't keep him from recording. His hit version of "Mr. Sandman" in 1955 displayed his gift for interpreting music written by others. He also began to draw on his varied musical background in his recordings, releasing albums such as the classically influenced Chet Atkins in Three dimensions. Atkins' musical tastes weren't stuck in the past, though, as he kept up with the latest musical trends, some of which he inspired. When Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles wasreleased in 1966, it came with an endorsement in the liner notes from one of his more famous fans, Beatles guitarist George Harrison. The music industry also recognized the quality of Atkins' work throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He was repeatedly named the top guitarist of the year by Cash Box magazine and won several Grammy awards. Some of Atkins' most highly praised recordings were collaborations with his guitar heroes. He recorded The Atkins-Travis Travelin' Show with Travis in 1974,and his 1976 effort with Les Paul, Chester and Lester, won a Grammy. Atkins explained the appeal of such duets to Kevin Ransom of Guitar Player: ""Playing with other guitarists inspires me to play better than I normally would, because it's kind of competitive."
Although his legend was secure, the 1980s brought changes in Atkins' place in the music industry. In 1982 he left RCA, where he was a vice-president, to sign with Columbia. Country music was changing, too, and Atkins' songs were more likely to be heardon New Age radio than on country stations. As always, though, Atkins successfully ranged across the musical spectrum. Two collaborations with rock guitarist Mark Knopfler won Grammies: the 1985 track "Cosmic Square Dance" and the 1990 album Neck and Neck. Throughout the 1990s, Atkins continued to record with guitarists who had learned from listening to him. The albums Read My Licks and The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World showcased Atkins playing with such diverse performers asKnopfler, jazz guitarist George Benson, country performer SteveWariner, and young Australian guitar phenomenon Tommy Emmanuel.
Surgery for a benign brain tumor and a stroke in 1997 slowed Atkins, but he remained active. He told Jim Patterson of theAssociated Press, "I can play with feeling. But technically, I can't hook it like I used to." Still, he practiced daily and kept busy in the studio, putting together the 1998 album Tribute to Tradition, a collection of classic country songs performed by contemporary artists. He even played on one of the tracks, a version of "O Lonesome Me," which was a number-one hit when he produced it for Don Gibson in 1959. Another of Atkins' projects has been the annual Chet Atkins' Musician Days, a week of concerts and seminars for musicians. With all his attention to younger performers, Atkins showed that his legacy existed not only in the body of work that he has produced, but also in the knowledge and encouragement that he passed down to newgenerations.
Atkins died on June 30, 2001, at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 77 and had battled cancer for several years.
by Lloyd Hemingway
Chet Atkins's Career
Played fiddle in the street for small change as a child;during the 1940s played fiddle and/or guitar for various radiostations and radio shows, including The Jumpin' Bill Carlisleand Archie Campbell Show and Midday Merry-Go-Round at WNOX,Knoxville, TN; member of staff band, WLW, Cincinnati, OH;performed on the Grand Ole Opry, 1946; signed with RCA, 1947;recorded hit single "Main Street Breakdown," 1949; performedagain on the Grand Ole Opry during the late 1940s and 1950s withthe Carter Family and Homer and Jethro; served in multiplecapacities for RCA Victor Records, 1949-82; signed with Columbia,1982.
Chet Atkins's Awards
Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1973;several Grammy Award winning recordings, including Me and Jerry,1970, Chet Atkins Picks the Best, 1971, "Snowbird," 1971, Chester and Lester, 1976, "Cosmic Square Dance," 1985, Neck and Neck,1990; named top guitarist several times by Cash Box Magazine. Received Humanitarian Award, 1972, from National Council of Christians and Jews; received Century Award, 1997,from Billboard Magazine.
- Selected discography
- Chet Atkins Plays Guitar , RCA, 1951.
- Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions , RCA, 1951.
- Hi-Fi in Focus , RCA, 1957.
- At Home , RCA, 1958.
- In Hollywood , RCA, 1959.
- Mister Guitar , RCA, 1960.
- Workshop , RCA, 1961.
- Down Home , RCA, 1962.
- Our Man in Nashville , RCA, 1963.
- Guitar Country , RCA, 1964.
- Progressive Pickin' , RCA, 1964.
- My Favorite Guitars , RCA, 1965.
- Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles , RCA, 1966.
- From Nashville , RCA, 1966.
- Guitar World , RCA, 1967.
- (with Jerry Reed) Me and Jerry , RCA, 1970 .
- This is Chet Atkins , RCA, 1970.
- For the Good Times , RCA, 1971.
- Welcome to My World , RCA, 1971.
- Pickin' My Way , RCA, 1971.
- Now & Then , RCA, 1972.
- Chet Atkins Picks on the Hits , RCA, 1972.
- (with Merle Travis) The Atkins-Travis Travelin' Show , RCA,1974.
- Atkins String Band , RCA, 1975.
- (with Les Paul) Chester and Lester , RCA, 1976.
- Stay Tuned , Columbia, 1985.
- Chet Atkins , C.G.P., Columbia, 1989.
- (with Mark Knopfler) Neck and Neck , Columbia, 1990.
- (with Jerry Reed) Sneakin' Around , Columbia, 1992.
- Read My Licks , Columbia, 1994.
- The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World , Columbia, 1997.
- Contemporary Musicians, vol. 5, Gale Research, Inc., 1991.
- Billboard, December 6, 1997.
- Chicago Sun-Times, October 6, 1998, p. 33.
- Florida Times Union(Jacksonville), July 12, 1998, p. E3.
- Guitar Player, October, 1994.
- Star Tribune(Minneapolis), May 22, 1998, p. 3E.
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