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Atkins, Chet (originally Chester Burton)

album country grammy pop

Atkins, Chet (originally Chester Burton), American guitarist, producer, and record company executive; b. near Luttrell, Tenn., June 20, 1924. As a performer, Atkins developed a finger-picking style that influenced other guitarists in all areas of music; during a 50-year recording career, he made at least 84 albums, reaching the pop or country charts with 47 releases between 1957 and 1996 and winning 13 Grammys. As a session musician, A&R man, record producer, and company executive for RCA Victor Records, he guided the recording careers of dozens of performers and developed the pop-oriented Nashville Sound to compete with rock ‘n’ roll and cross over to the pop charts in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Atkins, the son of James Arley Atkins, a music teacher, and Ida Sharp Atkins, was raised on a farm. He first began playing the ukulele at three or four; then turned to the guitar, acquiring one at the age of nine; then, the fiddle. He suffered from asthma, which later made him ineligible for military service, and spent much of his childhood convalescing and practicing the guitar. His parents had divorced when he was six; in 1935 he went to live with his father and stepmother near Columbus, Ga., for health reasons. He was particularly influenced by the finger-picking guitar style of Merle Travis, which he first heard on the radio when he was 14. At 17 he dropped out of high school to work in music full-time.

Atkins was hired as a fiddler by radio station WNOX in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1942; he later played guitar on the station and in concerts with other radio performers. His first recording session was as a sideman in 1944. In 1945 he moved to WLW in Cincinnati. There he met singer Leona Johnson, whom he married on July 3, 1946; they had one child.

Leaving WLW in December 1945, Atkins worked at a succession of radio stations: first WPTF in Raleigh, N.C.; then WSM in Nashville, where in 1946 he cut “Brown Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Guitar Blues,” his first recordings as a leader, for Bullet Records, and first performed on Grand Ole Opry with Red Foley; then WRVA in Richmond, Va.; KWTO in Springfield, Mo.; and KOA in Denver.

Steve Sholes, an executive at RCA, heard a radio transcription of Atkins in 1947 and offered him a recording contract; Atkins did his first session for the label in Chicago on Aug. 11, 1947. He didn’t score any hits and returned to working at WNOX in Knoxville. He began playing with the comic musical team of Homer and Jethro and later worked with the Carter Family spin-off group the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. The group went to KWTO in Springfield, then in 1950 was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, and Atkins moved with them to Nashville.

In Nashville, Atkins worked as a session musician for RCA and other labels and helped set up recording sessions. Eventually he was formally hired by RCA as an A&R assistant. Meanwhile, he collaborated with Boudleaux Bryant on two song hits: “Midnight,” which topped the country charts for Red Foley in January 1953, and “How’s the World Treating You?” which hit the country Top Ten for Eddy Arnold in July 1953. He also continued to make instrumental guitar records for RCA, scoring his first country chart entry with a version of “Mister Sandman” (music and lyrics by Pat Ballard) in January 1955. In February 1956 he first made the pop charts with “The Poor People of Paris (Jean’s Song)” (music by Marguerite Monnot, English lyrics by Jack Lawrence).

Atkins was promoted to RCA’s manager of operations for Nashville in the spring of 1957 and put in charge of the new recording studio the label was building in the city. In the wake of the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, traditional country was losing its audience, and Atkins turned to a more cosmopolitan style for his artists, de-emphasizing the fiddles and steel guitars and adding strings and vocal choruses. The resulting Nashville Sound rejuvenated country’s popularity and led to many hits that crossed over to the pop charts.

The 12-inch long-playing record had become an industry standard by the second half of the 1950s, and as a recording artist Atkins usually cut two or three per year, first reaching the pop album charts with Chet Atkins at Home in June 1958. His 1961 album Chet Atkins’ Workshop hit the pop Top Ten. In 1963 he earned his first Grammy nomination for Best Rock & Roll Recording for “Teen Scene,” the title track from an album that had placed in both the pop and country charts. He topped the country charts in May 1964 with his LP Guitar Country, which earned him a second Grammy nomination for Best Country & Western Album. He scored his biggest country single hit with “Yakety Axe” (music by Boots Randolph and James Rich), his guitar treatment of “Yakety Sax,” which peaked in the Top Ten in September 1965 and earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Performance (Other than Jazz). He also earned a 1965 Grammy nomination for Best Country & Western Album for More of That Guitar Country .

Atkins’s next entry in the pop album charts came in March 1966 with Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles, which brought him another Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Performance (Other than Jazz). His last album to earn substantial pop sales was a collaboration with the Boston Pops Orch. conducted by Arthur Fiedler, The “Pops” Goes Country, which charted in June 1966. Chet Atkins Picks the Best, released in June 1967, won him his first Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance.

RCA promoted Atkins in March 1968 to division vice president in charge of popular artists and repertoire in Nashville. Despite his corporate responsibilities, he was still able to find time to record. NARAS added a Grammy category in 1969 for Best Country Instrumental Performance, and Atkins competed for the award for the next nine years: in 1969 he was nominated for the album Solid Gold ‘69; in 1970 he was nominated for the track “Yestergroovin”’ from the album of the same name and won for Me and Jerry, a duet album with Jerry Reed; in 1971 he won again for the single “Snowbird” (music and lyrics by Gene Maclellan); in 1972 he was nominated for Chet Atkins Picks on the Hits and for Me and Chet, another duet album with Jerry Reed; in 1973 he was nominated for the single “Fiddlin’ Around” and for the album Superpickers; in 1974 he won for The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show, a duet album with Merle Travis; in 1975 he was nominated for the track “Colonel Bogey” with Jerry Reed and won for the single “The Entertainer” (music by Scott Joplin); in 1976 he won for Chester and Lester, a duet album with Les Paul; and in 1977 he was nominated on his own for Me and My Guitar and with Floyd Cramer and Danny Davis for Chet, Floyd and Danny . For a change, in 1978 his second album with Les Paul, Guitar Monsters, was nominated for the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.

Atkins cut back on his corporate and recording activities in 1979, though he continued to earn Grammy nominations for Best Country Instrumental Performance (for the single “Dance with Me” in 1980 and the album Reflections, a duet LP with Doc Watson in 1981), winning his seventh Grammy in the category in 1981 for the album Country, After All These Years . He resigned that year from RCA, and in 1982 he left the label as an artist, signing to Columbia Records instead.

Atkins’s work for Columbia was more varied, starting with the May 1983 release of an exercise album, Work It Out with Chet Atkins, C.G.P. (the initials referring to his self-conferred degree of certified guitar player), which earned him his 25th Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance for its track “Tara Theme.” His 26th nomination and eighth award in the same category came in 1985 for “Cosmic Square Dance,” a jazz-fusion track from Stay Tuned that found him duetting with such guitarists as George Benson, Larry Carlton, Earl Klugh, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and Steve Lukather of Toto.

Atkins toured occasionally and recorded an album every year and a half or two years into the mid-1990s, continuing to pile up Grammy nominations and awards. He and Mark Knopfler won two 1990 Grammys, for Best Country Vocal Collaboration for “Poor Boy Blues” and for Best Country Instrumental Performance for “So Soft Your Goodbye.” Their duet album, Neck and Neck, released in October 1990, earned a 1991 Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Atkins and Jerry Reed won that award the following year for their duet album Sneakin’ Around . Atkins won it again in 1994 for the track “Young Thing” from his album Read My Licks . He shared another country vocal collaboration nomination the next year for the track “All My Loving” (music and lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney) from the various artists album TogetherAmerican Salutes the Beatles . He won his 13th Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance of 1996 for the track “Jam Man” (music by Chet Atkins) from his album Almost Alone; he earned his 34th nomination in the same category in 1997 for the track “Smokey Mountain Lullaby” from the album The Day the Finger Pickers Took Over the World a duet with the Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel.

Atkins, Simon Green(1863–1934) - Educator, college president, Chronology [next] [back] Atkins, Anna

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