The King of Rock 'n' Roll never made music by himself.
He worked with some of the best musicians, singers, songwriters, producers and engineers in the business. All of these talents combined to bring some of the most influential and groundbreaking music to the ears of music fans around the world.
Here on the Graceland Blog, we've covered several of the incredible talents who worked with Elvis, including Floyd Cramer, Blue Moon Boys, Sam Phillips, and The Jordanaires. This week, we're getting to know musician, producer and songwriter Chet Atkins, better known as Mr. Guitar or The Country Gentleman.
Chet Atkins was born in Luttrell, Tennessee, in 1924. He loved music from a young age and started playing the ukulele as a child. He later moved on to the fiddle and then the guitar - which quickly became his favorite instrument. He practiced and practiced, and by the time he was in high school, he was an accomplished guitar player.
Some of Chet Atkins' biggest solo hits include "Yakety Axe," "Mr. Sandman," "Silver Bell" and "Prissy."
He began to develop his own style in 1939 after hearing musician Merle Travis on the radio. Travis' style was called "Travis Picking," and Atkins was inspired. He soon began his music career, and it was slow going for a few years until he was signed by RCA Victor in 1947.
Atkins wore many hats during his career. He recorded his own music, assisted recording executive Steve Sholes as a session leader, manged RCA Victor's Nashville Studio (eventually seeing the completion of RCA Studio B, where many artists, including Elvis, recorded their hits), and became a design consultant for Gretsch, a guitar manufacturer. He wrote songs and was a session musician, too.
Steve Sholes took over pop production in 1957, as Elvis' career took off, so he put Atkins in charge of RCA's Nashville division. Atkins, along with producers Bob Ferguson and Owen Bradley, created what would become known as the "Nashville Sound" - less of a rough, honky tonk sound, and more of a polished, sophisticated sound with strings, choruses and background vocals. This smooth sound allowed country artists to crossover to more of a pop sound and appeal to a wider audience.
Atkins enjoyed a long career in music, and he worked with some of the best in the business. He recorded his own albums, which featured him performing a mix of country, jazz and pop standards. He was never afraid to mix things up and experiment. As vice president of RCA's country division, he brought stars like Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton to the label; he also signed country music's first African-American singer, Charley Pride.
Chet Atkins performed on several Elvis hits.
The first time Elvis worked with Chet Atkins was January 1956 at RCA's Nashville studio. Chet worked with Elvis and his band, including Bill Black and Scotty Moore, who was a big fan of Chet's, on tracks like "I Got a Woman," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Money Honey," "I'm Counting on You" and "I Was the One." He also recorded with Elvis in April, when the king cut "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You." Later in 1956, Elvis recorded the Atkins-penned tune "How's the World Treating You."
Atkins played on Elvis' studio sessions for RCA on June 10, 1958, recording "I Need Your Love Tonight," "A Big Hunk O' Love," "Ain't That Loving You Baby," "(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such as I" and "I Got Stung." For this session, Atkins assembled Nashville's "A-Team" of session musicians, including Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland on guitar, Bob Moore on bass, Buddy Harmon on drums, Floyd Cramer on piano and, of course, the Jordanaires.
This photo was taken at the April 14, 1956 recording session.
While Elvis and the band was working on "Ain't That Loving You Baby," Elvis was frustrated - the song didn't come along very naturally, and they worked on finding the best arrangement and changed the tempo. Atkins stepped in, and Elvis yelled, "Boogie, Chet," and Atkins created a walking bass figure on guitar to help stabilize the rhythm in the faster arrangement.
After Elvis' time in the Army, he returned to the studio in 1960. Atkins and Sholes worked on Elvis' March 20, 1960 recording session at RCA's Studio B in Nashville, which produced tunes like "Stuck on You," "A Mess of Blues," "Make Me Know It," "Soldier Boy," "Fame and Fortune" and "It Feels So Right." Elvis' last recording session with Atkins (and Sholes) took place on January 12, 1964, in Nashville, and the band recorded "Memphis, Tennessee," "It Hurts Me" and "Ask Me."
Atkins continued to perform and record into the 1990s, but his health declined after he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996. He died in 2001 in Nashville.
Atkins won 14 Grammy Awards, as well as nine Country Music Association awards for Instrumentalist of the Year. He won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 and he won Billboard Magazine's Century Award in 1997.
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