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Lest We Forget

Posted on June 30, 2001

Chet Atkins

Legendary Guitarist


Chet Atkins, whose guitar style influenced a generation of rock musicians even as he helped develop an easygoing country style to compete with it, died today. He was 77. Atkins died at home. Atkins had battled cancer several years. He underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in June 1997, and had a bout with colon cancer in the 1970s. Atkins recorded more than 75 albums of guitar instrumentals and sold more than 75 million albums. He played on hundreds of hit records, including those of Elvis Presley (“Heartbreak Hotel”), Hank Williams Sr. (“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Jambalaya”) and The Everly Brothers (“Wake Up Little Susie”). As an executive with RCA Records for nearly two decades beginning in 1957, Atkins played a part in the careers of Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings, Eddy Arnold and many others. Atkins helped craft the lush Nashville Sound, using string sections and lots of echo to make records that appealed to older listeners not interested in rock music. Among his notable productions are “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis and “He’ll Have to Go” by Reeves.

Chester Burton Atkins was born June 20, 1924, on a farm near Luttrell, Tenn., about 20 miles northeast of Knoxville. His elder brother Jim Atkins also played guitar, and went on to perform with Les Paul. Chet Atkins’ first professional job was as a fiddler on WNOX in Knoxville, where his boss was singer Bill Carlisle. Atkins’ unusual fingerpicking style, a pseudoclassical variation influenced by such diverse talents as Merle Travis and Django Reinhardt, got him hired and fired from jobs at radio stations all over the country. Atkins sometimes joked that early on his playing sounded “like two guitarists playing badly.” During the 1940s he toured with many acts, including Red Foley, The Carter Family and Kitty Wells. RCA executive Steve Sholes took Atkins on as a protege in the 1950s, using him as the house guitarist on recording sessions.

Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, Leona Johnson Atkins, and a daughter, Merle Atkins. Visitation for Chet Atkins will be Monday evening 5-8pm at: Roesch-Patton Funeral Home, 1715 Broadway, Nashville, TN. The funeral scheduled for Tuesday morning, July 3rd, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville.

Physician and guitarist Jim Coleman, one of Chet Atkins’ doctors, has recorded a tribute album to the ailing Country Music Hall of Fame member. Titled The Guitar That Made America Great, Coleman’s 15-song collection covers such Atkins memorables as “Mr. Sandman,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Vincent,” “Waitin’ for Suzy B” and “I Still Can’t Say Goodbye.” Coleman holds the distinction of having played with Atkins during his last public performance, June 12, 1998, in Knoxville.

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