Influential guitarist Chet Atkins, who helped modernize country music in the 1960s, paving the way for the massive commercial force that it is today, died in Nashville Saturday. He was 77.
In 1973 and in 1997, Atkins had fought both colon cancer and brain cancer, surviving a number of surgeries.
Atkins, enjoyed a multi-faceted career: as a sought-after session musician for the likes of Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers; as a prolific recording artist in his own right; and as a veteran Nashville talent scout. His discoveries included Charley Pride and Waylon Jennings.
Atkins was one of the most powerful people in Nashville during the 1960s, when he worked at RCA Records, producing such stars as Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson and Jim Reeves. He was dubbed “the King of Music Row,” a reference to the Nashville strip where the labels were headquartered. To his death, he maintained an unassuming office on Music Row. He also owned prime real estate in the area.
Younger pop artists such as Mark Knopfler, George Harrison and Paul McCartney frequently cited Atkins’ unconventional guitar-picking style as an influence. Atkins returned the Fab Four’s compliments with the 1966 album “Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles.”
Knopfler, former frontman for Dire Straits, shared two Grammys with Atkins in 1990 for their acclaimed album “Neck and Neck.” Atkins won 14 Grammys in all, his latest in 1996. At 49, he was the youngest person to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“CERTIFIED GUITAR PLAYER”
Beginning in the mid-1950s, Atkins released over a hundred albums, and earned the nickname Mr. Guitar Man. Below his signature, he would add “cgp” – certified guitar player.
His legacy will probably be “the Nashville Sound,” which he developed with late Decca Records producer, Owen Bradley, the man behind such acts as Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn.
“We took the twang out of it, Owen and I,” Atkins told author Nicholas Dawidoff in the 1997 book “In The Country of Country.” “In my case it went more uptown. I’d take out the steel guitar and the fiddle, which branded a song as strictly country. I tried to make songs for both markets.”
While the strategy helped country get back on its feet after being laid waste by the resurgence of rock ‘n’ roll, it also softened the genre for mass consumption, providing careers for the well-coiffed, telegenic artists who dominate country music today.
Atkins acknowledged that country risked losing its identity at times, but was always heartened by neo-traditional performers such as Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis or Suzy Bogguss.
Chester Burton Atkins was born on June 20, 1924, in impoverished hill country near Knoxville, Tennessee.
Atkins began his music career at age 5 with a broken ukelele featuring strings made from a screen door
He learned to play guitar by listening to music shows on a home-made crystal radio set. His older half-brother and his father, a classically trained Irish tenor, also taught him the rudiments.
Atkins’ thumb-and-three-fingers plucking style was derived from such players as Kentucky songwriter Merle Travis and European jazz icon Django Reinhardt.
He got his first job, at 17, playing with a radio station orchestra in Knoxville. He went on to work at other stations around the country, but was frequently fired on account of his unorthodox style. In 1947, he signed to RCA Records, scoring minor hits with such tunes as “Galloping on the Guitar” and “Main Street Breakdown.
By 1950, Atkins was in the relative musical backwater of Nashville playing at the Grand Ole Opry with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. He established himself as a versatile session player. Among the records he played guitar on were Presley’s breakthrough RCA single “Heartbreak Hotel” (which healso arranged), Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” and the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love.”
He continued having his own successes, such as his 1953 signature instrumental “Country Gentleman” and the 1955 country smash “Mr. Sandman.”
In 1957, Atkins started managing RCA’s Nashville office, and stayed with the label until 1982, when he moved to Columbia Records. His first RCA signing was Don Gibson, who enjoyed an immediate smash with “Oh Lonesome Me.” Other acts included Jerry Reed and Waylon Jennings. He recorded a few tracks with McCartney in 1974.
The move to Columbia rejuvenated his own career. Atkins returned to the charts with the 1985 album “Stay Tuned,” which had originally been turned down by RCA. The album featured Knopfler, Earl Klugh, Steve Lukather and George Benson.
Other artists he recorded with included Reed (1970’s “Me and Jerry Reed,” 1992’s “Sneakin’ Around”), Travis (1975’s “The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show”), guitar icon Les Paul (1976’s “Chester and Lester”) and Australian prodigy Tommy Emmanuel (1997’s “The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World”).
During his years as a producer, in addition to Presley and the Everly Brothers, Atkins worked with Dolly Parton, Dottie West, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, Perry Como and others. As a performer, he made appearances on almost every major television show of his time. His awards included the Playboy Magazine Jazz Poll, Guitar Player Magazine Award, Yamaha Music Award, and Cashbox Magazine award.
He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, singer Leona Johnson, whom he said was the only woman he ever dated. They named their daughter, Merle, after Merle Travis.