Chet Atkins Biography

Chester Burton Atkins, 20 June 1924, Luttrell, Tennessee, USA, d. 30 June 2001, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. The man known as ‘Mister Guitar’ was one of the most influential and prolific guitarists of the twentieth century, as well as an important producer and an RCA Records executive. The son of a music teacher and brother of guitarist Jim Atkins (who played with Les Paul), Atkins began as a fiddler in the early 40s, with the Dixieland Swingers in Knoxville, Tennessee. He also played with artists including Bill Carlisle and Shorty Thompson. He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1946 and his first recording session took place that year, for Jim Bulleit’s label. In 1947 Atkins was signed to RCA, recording 16 tracks on 11 August, including a number of vocals. Atkins first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1948, working with a band that included satirists Homer And Jethro. He toured with Maybelle Carter in 1949 and recorded as an accompanist with the Carter Family the following year. At that time he made a decision to concentrate on session work, encouraged and often hired by music publisher Fred Rose. During this period, Atkins recorded largely with MGM Records artists such as Red Sovine and the Louvin Brothers, and most notably on 24 of Hank Williams’ tracks for the label. He also recorded on several of the Everly Brothers’ Cadence Records hits later in the 50s.

In 1952 RCA executive Steve Sholes, who had signed Atkins for session work, gave him authority to build up the label’s roster, and Atkins began a second career as a talent scout. By the mid-50s he was recording his own albums and producing 30 artists a year for RCA. Atkins’ first album, Chet Atkins’ Gallopin’ Guitar, was issued in 1953, and his discography eventually comprised over 100 albums under his own name. Among the other artists with whom he worked at RCA were Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Hank Snow, Jerry Reed and Perry Como, and he is generally regarded as the chief architect of the pop-orientated ‘Nashville Sound’.

Atkins’ trademark guitar was a Gretsch, which was later manufactured as the ‘Chet Atkins Country Gentleman’. George Harrison endorsed this instrument, and this led to a huge increase in sales for the company during the 60s. During this decade Atkins recorded the first of a series of guitar duet albums, including works with Snow, Reed, Merle Travis, Les Paul and Doc Watson. Atkins was named an RCA vice-president in 1968 and remained in that position until 1981. The following year he left RCA for Columbia Records and continued to record for that company into the following decade.

Atkins won several Grammy awards and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. In the 90s he collaborated with Suzy Bogguss, Mark Knopfler and Tommy Emmanuel, and went full circle in 1996 with a true solo work, Almost Alone, which contained tributes to the aforementioned artists. For over five decades Atkins was the consummate professional musician who was greatly respected and liked by all who ever worked with him.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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