Sunday, July 01, 2001

Guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins dies

One of 1st jobs was in Cincinnati

By Jim Patterson, The Associated Press
and Howard Wilkinson, The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 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 Saturday. He was 77.

        Mr. Atkins, who died at home, had battled cancer for several years. He underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in 1997, and had a bout with colon cancer in the 1970s.

Chet Atkins
        He recorded more than 75 albums of guitar instrumentals and sold more than 75 million albums.

        Mr. Atkins 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”).

        The Tennessee native came to Cincinnati in the early 1940s for one of his first jobs in music — as a house musician for WLW radio. In that era, live radio bands were common, and the Cincinnati station was a familiar beacon for country music fans in the Midwest.

        He met his wife of more than 50 years, Leona Johnson Atkins, while working as a fiddler and guitar picker at WLW-AM.

"Country Gentleman'
        Mrs. Atkins and her sister Lois Johnson made up the singing duo of “The Johnson Twins,” who sang on WLW.

        The twins were part of a large family — 16 brothers and sisters — who came from the Clermont County village of Marathon.

        Both ended up marrying WLW musicians who went on to become famous, said their sister Evelyn Adamson of New Richmond.

        Leona married the musician who became known worldwide as “Country Gentleman Chet Atkins” in 1946, while Lois married Kenneth C. “Jethro” Burns of the country comedy duo “Homer and Jethro.”

        Mrs. Adamson — who knew the famous guitarist as “Chester” — said the “Country Gentleman” name was well-suited to Mr. Atkins.

        “He was not at all a showy person — very quiet, almost bashful,” Mrs. Adamson said. “I honestly don't know how he got as far as he did given how bashful he was. But he was the best there ever was.”

        Chester Burton Atkins was born June 20, 1924, on a farm near Luttrell, Tenn., about 20 miles northeast of Knoxville.

        During the 1940s he toured with many acts, including Red Foley, The Carter Family and Kitty Wells.

Worked as executive
        RCA executive Steve Sholes took Mr. Atkins on as a protege in the 1950s, using him as the house guitarist on recording sessions.

        RCA began issuing instrumental albums by Mr. Atkins in 1953.

        As an executive with RCA Records for nearly two decades beginning in 1957, Mr. 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.

        Mr. 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.

        He quit his job as an executive in the 1970s and concentrated on playing guitar. He's collaborated with a wide range of artists on solo albums, including Mark Knopfler, Paul McCartney and George Benson.

        Mr. Atkins' unusual finger-picking style was a pseudoclassical variation influenced by such diverse talents as Merle Travis and Django Reinhardt.

        In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Merle Atkins.

        The funeral is Tuesday morning at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.


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