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Celebrating 60 Years of the Historic Gretsch-Chet Atkins Relationship

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Chet Atkins

How the right people and the right company came together at the right time to create a legendary line of electric guitars

By Fred W. Gretsch

In summer 1954, my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., and a rising Nashville session and recording guitar star named Chet Atkins put their signatures on a simple two-page contract. Neither of them could have predicted what was about to happen, or that this long and fruitful relationship would endure 60 years later.

So what made it work? I think it was a textbook example of what can happen when the right people and the right company come together at just the right time. Let’s start with the people.

SignaturesFrom the Gretsch side, you had Jimmie Webster, the man in charge of guitar design and marketing, and the face of Gretsch guitars to hundreds of dealers. When not in our Brooklyn factory, he was on the road selling, getting feedback from dealers and giving demonstrations and clinics. Jimmie was a fine jazz guitarist, famous for his unique string-tapping technique called the “touch system.” He also had a keen eye and ear for talent.

Fred Gretsch Jr. was president of the Gretsch company at the time, and part of the management team that decided to push the business’s professional drum and guitar lines after World War II. He surrounded himself with good, talented people who really knew the music business, such as Jimmie Webster and Phil Grant on the drum side, and Duke Kramer on the guitar side. He trusted this team and their instincts and guided Gretsch through a golden age of growth and innovation.

Credit also must be given to the skilled craftsmen back at the Brooklyn Gretsch factory, who took personal pride in making Chet Atkins guitars every day. These people included, for instance, longtime, dedicated employees such as Vinnie Di Domenico and his nephew, Jerry Perito; Carmine Coppolla; Johnny De Rosa in the finishing room and many, many others.

And then there was Chet Atkins himself. The quiet guitarist’s career had taken off since moving to Nashville in 1950 to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and WSM radio with the Carter Family. By 1954, this national exposure had helped make him a popular recording and session musician. He was also just starting to find success in the recording studio producing other country and western artists.

The Gretsch company also happened to be a good fit for a tinkering, inventive artist like Chet. We were a relatively small company and had a good reputation for collaborating with musicians such as Harry Volpe, Louie Bellson and others to build custom instruments. Gretsch’s most famous endorsement at the time had been with Radio City Music Hall’s master percussionist, Billy Gladstone, who worked closely with us to create the revolutionary Gretsch-Gladstone snare drum.

Like Chet Atkins, Jimmie Webster also shared a passion for inventing new ways to improve the sound and playability of the electric guitar—which was still in its infancy in the early 1950s. Although I’m not sure he had permission from my uncle, Jimmie had no reservations about promising Chet that he could help design a Chet Atkins signature model guitar if he switched from D’Angelico to Gretsch.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Gretsch had made a lot of noise in the electric guitar field when it introduced the Electromatic and Electro II line of electrics in 1951 and the cool solid-body Duo Jet in 1953.

Gretsch had also noticed the recent success of Gibson’s Les Paul endorsement, and was looking to do something similar. In Jimmie’s mind, Chet was the rising star to which our company should hitch its wagon and guitar fortunes. Luck was on our side when Chet happened to attend one of Jimmie’s guitar demonstrations at a dealer in Nashville. They became friends and realized they had much in common, and Jimmie started pursuing Chet to become a Gretsch artist.

Chet’s career was also rising at this time and was about to blast off. The guitar virtuoso was making the electric guitar a popular, accepted solo instrument and was eager to have a signature guitar like his friend Les Paul. In fact, shortly after the orange, western-appointed Gretsch 6120 went on sale in 1955, Chet had his first hit single, “Mr. Sandman,” a crossover instrumental that lead to even more TV and radio exposure. And rock ‘n’ roll was about to explode onto the music scene, making the electric guitar even more important to a new generation of teenagers.

In retrospect, both Gretsch and Chet entered this endorsement knowing it had the potential to greatly benefit both sides. And it did. Chet said getting the Gretsch endorsement was a “major step” in his career and that having a signature guitar confirmed that he had arrived as an artist. He also benefitted from having his face and name prominently featured on Gretsch advertising campaigns and catalogs, and from having his signature on the pickguard of each guitar. And with the continued success of his recording career, it wasn’t long before Chet Atkins was a household name across America and abroad.

Chet was also dedicated to helping Gretsch design the best-sounding and best-playing electric guitars possible. Some of his suggestions included a metal nut, metal bridge, additional bracing and closed f holes for more sustain. He also added the zero fret for improved string height and lower action, and he worked with Ray Butts to develop the humbucking Filter’Tron pickup. Atkins also worked with Paul Bigsby to develop his distinctive “bent-wire” Bigsby vibrato arm.

Gretsch benefitted equally from being linked to Chet’s long, successful career as a master guitarist, recording star, producer and record company executive. Gretsch guitars were put on the map and in the spotlight every time Chet performed in concert or on TV. He also featured a Gretsch guitar on practically all of his own album covers. He made personal appearances on Gretsch’s behalf (back in the day when the NAMM Show was held at the Palmer Hotel in Chicago), and he performed at “Guitarama” clinics with Jimmie Webster. Sales were strong from day one, and went through the roof when one of Chet’s biggest fans, Beatles guitarist George Harrison, played a Country Gentleman guitar on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964.

As I reflect on this milestone anniversary, Gretsch could not have chosen a better artist—or person—than Chet Atkins as our first guitar endorsee. He made only positive contributions to the Gretsch brand and to my family’s name. He was respected and loved; he was married to his wife, Leona, for over 50 years; and worked very hard to earn the nickname “Mr. Guitar.”

He was also a man of integrity. For example, Chet stayed with the Gretsch endorsement for 25 years as a courtesy and out of loyalty to my uncle, even though Baldwin had stopped making Gretsch guitars in the late 1970s. When my uncle passed away in 1980, Chet ended the endorsement and went over to Gibson a year later.

My wife, Dinah, and I were honored to be Chet’s friends, and his visits to our Savannah office and his personal invitations to see many of his shows and visit with him backstage are cherished memories. After Chet’s passing in 2001, I wanted to honor Chet by working with Paul Yandell, Chet’s trusted right-hand man of 25 years, to create the Nashville Classic guitar. This was a faithful reproduction of Chet’s famous 1959 Country Gentleman, on which he recorded most of his RCA hits.

There was also a groundswell of interest from his fans to see Chet’s name back on Gretsch guitars. It took time and a lot of work with Chet’s family and Paul Yandell, but it came together and the Gretsch-Chet Atkins endorsement was proudly renewed in 2007. In 2011, Gretsch was honored to be the title sponsor of a major exhibit, “Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player,” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn.

I’m proud that Chet Atkins and the Gretsch family will be forever linked. Today, his name and distinctive signature appear on 16 Gretsch models, including 6120, Country Gentleman and Tennessean guitars. They all follow the faithful formula and recipe from the 1950s and are more popular than ever today. A true testament to what can happen when the right people and the right company come together with the right purpose in mind.

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Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to Honor Chet Atkins

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“Years from now, after I’m gone, someone will listen to what I’ve done and know I was here…they’ll hear my guitars speaking for me.” – Chet Atkins

Sideman.  Studio musician.  Performer.  Recording Artist.  Producer.  Record Executive. In an industry known for multi-talented individuals, perhaps no one has achieved such a vast and varied resume as the inimitable Chet Atkins.  The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum will pay tribute to this versatile and visionary artist with the cameo exhibition Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player, which opens on Aug. 11 and runs through June 2012.

The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Gretsch Company with additional support provided by Great American Country Television Network.

“Chet Atkins was country music’s ultimate Renaissance man, one of the greatest instrumentalists in American music history and a true musical savant,” said museum director Kyle Young.  “His signature guitar licks shaped recordings by scores of legendary artists, including the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley and Kitty Wells, and his playing influenced future rock gods Duane Eddy, George Harrison, Mark Knopfler and many more.  As a producer, Chet was an architect of the ‘Nashville Sound’; he was also a brilliant record executive who signed and propelled a generation of country artists – including Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Charley Pride – to fame.  Chet’s guiding hand shaped much of the bedrock of country music, and we’re honored to tell his story, one we know will resonate with country fans old and new.

“We’re also honored to have the Gretsch Company as this exhibition’s title sponsor,” Young continued.  “Gretsch is an important part of American music history, and enjoyed a longstanding relationship with Chet.”

Gretsch signed Atkins as the company’s first-ever signature guitar artist in 1954.

“Our company is proud of its long association with Chet,­ and our family cherishes the special relationship that we shared with such a unique individual,” said Gretsch Company president Fred W. Gretsch. “We’re proud to support this special exhibition by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. We share the museum’s commitment to ensuring that Chet’s unrivaled legacy will continue to be celebrated for generations to come.”

Chester Burton Atkins was born on June 20, 1924, in Luttrell, Tenn., a remote town nestled in the hills of Appalachia.  He grew up in a musical family – his mother sang and played piano, and his father was an itinerant music teacher – and at the age of eight, Atkins began to learn the guitar and fiddle.  When Atkins’ parents divorced, his father relocated to Georgia, and his mother remarried. Young Chester, along with his brother, sister and stepfather, began playing regularly at square dances.  In 1936, an asthma attack forced him to live with his father in Georgia, where the more favorable climate made it easier for him to breathe.  While there, a teenaged Atkins heard Merle Travis on the radio; Travis’s thumb-and-finger picking style fascinated Atkins, who soon created his own thumb-and-two-finger variation.

After attending high school in Georgia, Atkins landed a job at WNOX in Knoxville, fiddling for singer Bill Carlisle and comic Archie Campbell. He soon became a featured player on the station’s popular daily barn dance show, as well.  Over the next decade, Atkins worked as a musician for numerous artists and radio stations, including a memorable stint at KWTO in Springfield, Mo.  It was there that station official Si Siman gave him the nickname “Chet.” Siman, impressed with Atkins’ abilities, brought him to the attention of RCA Victor Records, and in 1947 the label’s Steve Sholes signed Atkins as a singer and guitarist.  Atkins’ initial RCA recordings were not hits, and he returned to WNOX in 1948, working first with Homer & Jethro and then joining Maybelle and the Carter Sisters as lead guitarist.  He soon went back to KWTO, this time with the Carters.

When the Carters moved to Nashville in 1950 to become members of the Grand Ole Opry, Atkins joined them.  With the help of his mentor, Steve Sholes, and music executive Fred Rose, he became one of Nashville’s “A-Team” session musicians, recording with Johnnie & Jack, Hank Williams and others.  He also appeared on the Opry as a solo act and returned to making his own records; his first chart hit, a cover of the pop song “Mr. Sandman,” came in 1955, followed by a hit guitar duet with Hank Snow on “Silver Bell.”  Soon after, fans began to refer to Atkins as “Mr. Guitar,” and Gretsch Guitars introduced a model bearing his name.

Throughout the 1950s, Atkins’ work relationship with the New York–based Sholes deepened; in 1952, Atkins began organizing sessions for Sholes, and shortly thereafter Sholes began trusting Atkins to produce sessions whenever Sholes’ schedule prevented his coming to Nashville.  In 1955, Sholes made Atkins manager of RCA’s new Nashville studio, a space rented as needed from the Methodist Television Radio and Film Commission.   Two years later, Sholes and Atkins convinced the label to commission its own office and studio in Nashville.  The resulting building, known today as RCA Studio B, opened in November 1957, adding impetus to the growing Music Row area. Sholes installed Atkins as head of the label’s Nashville artist & repertoire operation, and ten years later made him a company vice president.

As rock & roll eroded country music’s record sales and threatened its viability, Atkins’ production skills came to the foreground.  Atkins – along with Decca’s Owen Bradley, Columbia’s Don Law and Capitol’s Ken Nelson – began to craft recordings that would appeal to pop listeners as well as country fans. The style of these recordings, in which singers were backed by neutral rhythm sections and steel guitars, and fiddles were replaced by vocal choruses, came to be known as the “Nashville Sound.”  Atkins mined gold from the new approach immediately, first producing Jim Reeves’ 1957 crossover hit “Four Walls” and, later that year, producing Don Gibson’s 1958 double-sided smash “Oh Lonesome Me” / “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Atkins assumed production of established stars, including Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Hank Snow, and produced hits by new stars including Bobby Bare, the Browns, Floyd Cramer, Skeeter Davis, Dottie West and many more.

During the 1960s, Atkins continued to record and perform:  Always a jazz lover, he increasingly explored the genre in his performances and appeared at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival; he also played for President Kennedy the following year.

By the middle of the decade, Atkins was producing more than two dozen acts for RCA.  During this time, he signed a cadre of now-legendary country artists, including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed and Connie Smith.

As the 1970s dawned, Atkins reduced his producing commitments and focused more on his own recordings and live performances.  He embarked on a series of collaborative albums, working with Les Paul, Jerry Reed, Merle Travis, Doc Watson and others.  However, he still found time to facilitate additions to the RCA roster, including Ronnie Milsap, Ray Stevens and Steve Wariner.

Atkins’ virtuosity was undeniable, and his mantle quickly filled with the hardware to prove it.  In 1973, Atkins was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  He went on to earn 14 Grammy awards and nine Country Music Association awards during his career.

In 1982, Atkins relinquished his RCA executive role and left the label to record for Columbia in 1983.  He also gave himself an honorary degree:  Atkins christened himself a “Certified Guitar Player” and began signing his name as “Chet Atkins, C.G.P.”  Atkins would later bestow this “degree” on several legatees, including Jerry Reed and Steve Wariner.

For the remainder of his life, Atkins continued to record and play; he collaborated on albums with George Benson, Suzy Bogguss, Mark Knopfler, Mark O’Connor and others, exploring and expanding the boundaries of country, jazz and pop.  In 1993, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Atkins died on June 30, 2001.  He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following year.

Chet Atkins:  Certified Guitar Player will be accompanied by an ongoing series of programs throughout the exhibit’s duration.

Visit www.countrymusichalloffame.org for more info about the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

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