Songwriters Friends



No single country instrumentalist has achieved the renown and respect of Chester Burton Atkins. His immense musical influence on country, rock, and jazz musicians from Jerry Reed to George Harrison, Duane Eddy, and Earl Klugh has lasted over nearly a half-century. Many hit records he produced during his days at RCA are now classics.

Atkins grew up in the hills near the tiny, remote East Tennessee town of Luttrell. James Atkins, his father, was an itinerant music teacher who had previously been married. His wife Ida, Chester’s mother, sang and played piano. After the Atkinses divorced, Ida Atkins remarried, in 1932, and Chester began to learn guitar and fiddle, often playing with his brother and sister and their stepfather, Willie Strevel. A 1936 asthma attack forced Chester to relocate to the improved climate at his father's Georgia farm, where one night in the late 1930s he first heard Merle Travis playing guitar from WLW in Cincinnati. Travis’s thumb-and-finger picking style fascinated Atkins, who created his own thumb-and-two-finger variation.

After attending high school in Georgia, Atkins landed a job at WNOX in Knoxville, fiddling for the team of singer Bill Carlisle and comic Archie Campbell. WNOX executive Lowell Blanchard heard Chester’s guitar playing and began featuring him on the Mid-Day Merry Go-Round, the station’s popular daily barn dance show. Atkins broadened his repertoire though listening sessions in the station’s music library. In 1945 he briefly joined WLW in Cincinnati, then in early 1946 worked with Johnnie & Jack in Raleigh, North Carolina, before moving to Chicago, where Red Foley, leaving the WLS National Barn Dance to host the Grand Ole Opry’s Prince Albert Show, hired Atkins and took him to Nashville. There, he made his first solo recording, "Guitar Blues," for the local Bullet label. Moving on to KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, Atkins received his nickname "Chet" from station official Si Siman. Other officials there, feeling his style too polished for “hillbilly” music, eventually fired him.

Meanwhile, however, Siman tried to interest record companies in Atkins, and RCA Victor's Steve Sholes signed him as a singer and guitarist in 1947. Around 1948, Chet returned to WNOX, working first with Homer & Jethro, then joining Maybelle and the Carter Sisters as lead guitarist. They subsequently worked at KWTO before relocating to Nashville to join the Opry in 1950. With Fred Rose’s help, Chet became one of Nashville’s early "A-Team" of session musicians, recording with everyone from Wade Ray to Hank Williams and Webb Pierce. He also appeared on the Opry as a solo act. His first chart hit, a cover of the pop hit "Mister Sandman," came in 1955, followed by a hit guitar duet with Hank Snow on "Silver Bell."

Through the 1950s Atkins’s relationship with Steve Sholes evolved into that of trusted protégé. Initially, Chet organized sessions, and if Sholes, who was based in New York, couldn’t come to Nashville, Atkins produced the records himself. In 1955 Sholes put Atkins in charge of RCA’s Nashville studios, first at a facility shared with the Methodist Radio, Television, and Film Commission, and later at an RCA-controlled studio that would become known as RCA Studio B. Eventually Atkins became an RCA Vice President, responsible for Nashville operations.

Only after rock & roll set back country record sales did Atkins’s production skills come into their own. Intent on increasing sales by making country records appeal to pop and country audiences, he, along with Owen Bradley at Decca, Don Law at Columbia, and Ken Nelson at Capitol, began to produce singers backed by neutral rhythm sections and replace steel guitars and fiddles with vocal choruses - a style immortalized as the Nashville Sound. Atkins transformed hard-country RCA artists Jim Reeves and Don Gibson by producing hits for both that successfully crossed over into the pop market. Among the many acts he produced successfully were Eddy Arnold, Skeeter Davis, Bobby Bare, and Floyd Cramer. In 1965 he took a major step forward by signing African-American country singer Charley Pride to RCA. That same year, Atkins enjoyed his own biggest hit single with "Yakety Axe," an adaptation of Nashville studio musician Boots Randolph’s hit "Yakety Sax."

Atkins produced a constant stream of solo RCA albums during these years. As he hired additional producers at RCA, he cut back his own production work to focus on recording, and Atkins made albums with other fine RCA guitarists: Hank Snow, Jerry Reed, Merle Travis, and Les Paul. In 1973 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame; from 1967 to 1988, Atkins won the CMA’s Instrumentalist of the Year honor eleven times. In 1982 he relinquished his RCA executive role and left RCA to record for Columbia in 1983. Frequent collaborations with younger players like British rock guitarist Mark Knopfler reflected Atkins’s desire to remain contemporary. In 1993 Atkins received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), placing him among such musical greats as Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Leonard Bernstein, and Paul McCartney.

Artists

American Quartet
Andrews Sisters
Louis Armstrong (Satchmo)
Fred Astaire
Chet Atkins
Gene Austin (Voice of the Southland)
Gene Autry
Nora Bayes
Brook Benton
Ben Bernie
Connee Boswell
Fanny Brice
Henry Burr
Cab Calloway
Glen Campbell
Albert Campbell
Carter Family (First Family of Country Music)
Enrico Caruso
Ray Charles
Patsy Cline
Larry Clinton
Rosemary Clooney
Nat Cole (King)
Arthur Collins
Perry Como
Bing Crosby
Bob Crosby
Frank Crumit
Vic Damone
Sammy Davis Jr.
Doris Day
Tommy Dorsey
Jimmy Dorsey
Cliff Edwards
Ruth Etting
Shep Fields
Eddie Fisher
Ella Fitzgerald
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Connie Francis
Aretha Franklin (Queen of Soul)
Lefty Frizzell
Jan Garber
Judy Garland
George J. Gaskin (The Silver Voice Irish Tenor)
Marvin Gaye
Benny Goodman (King of Swing)
Glen Gray
Byron G. Harlan
Marion Harris
Charles Harrison
Haydn Quartet
Dick Haymes
Horace Heidt
Woody Herman
Billie Holiday (Lady Day)
Whitney Houston
Eddy Howard
Ink Spots
Harry James
Lewis James
Al Jolson
Ada Jones
George Jones
Sammy Kaye
Hal Kemp
Wayne King (Waltz King)
Pee Wee King
Kay Kyser
Frankie Laine
Brenda Lee
Ted Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis (The Killer)
Guy Lombardo
Vincent Lopez
Harry MacDonough
Freddy Martin
Dean Martin
Johnny Mathis
John McCormack
Glenn Miller
Mills Brothers
Vaughn Monroe
Russ Morgan
Billy Murray (The Denver Nightingale)
J.W. Myers
Ozzie Nelson
Olivia Newton-John
George Olsen
Original Dixieland Jazz Band
Vess L. Ossman (The King of the Banjo)
Buck Owens
Patti Page
Minnie Pearl
Peerless Quartet
Peter, Paul & Mary
Elvis Presley (The King)
Ray Price
Prince's Orchestra
Dan Quinn
Leo Reisman
Paul Robeson
Roy Rogers
Linda Ronstadt
Diana Ross
Ben Selvin
Artie Shaw
Nat Shilkret
Dinah Shore
Frank Sinatra
Bessie Smith (Empress of the Blues)
Sousa's Band
Len Spencer
Dusty Springfield
Jo Stafford
Frank Stanley
Kay Starr
Cal Stewart
Barbra Streisand
The 4 Seasons
The 5th Dimension
The Byrds
The Carter Family
The Commodores
The Drifters
The Everly Brothers
The Four Tops
The Impressions
The Miracles
The Platters
The Righteous Brothers
The Spinners
The Supremes
The Temptations
Ernest Tubb (Texas Troubadour)
Sophie Tucker
Van & Schenck
Walter Van Brunt
Sarah Vaughan
Fred Waring
Dionne Warwick
Ted Weems
Kitty Wells
Paul Whiteman
Margaret Whiting
Bert Williams
Andy Williams
Teddy Wilson
Tammy Wynette