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Gibson Recommends Chet Atkins & Les Paul Chester & Lester

Sean McDevitt
NASHVILLE, 1975. It was May, spring was in the air, and a rebirth awaited Les Paul. He’d been in semi-retirement and largely off the radar for the better part of the previous decade, the arthritis in his hands slowing a man who more than a generation earlier had single-handedly transformed 20th century popular music through sheer innovation and instrumental brilliance. Now, his 60th birthday just weeks away and an array of young musicians across virtually every musical genre playing guitars bearing his name, Paul entered a Music City studio for a historic two-day summit.

The man who joined him there was nine years younger, but every bit as iconic. Chet Atkins had seen his status as a living legend cemented back in the early 1950s via his staggering finger-picked guitar lines, not to mention his key role in the creation of the Nashville Sound. And aside from his impressive credentials, he had a special connection to Les Paul: Chet’s half-brother, Jimmy, had been a singer and rhythm guitarist in a mid-1930s incarnation of the Les Paul Trio, and Jimmy passed on to Chet a custom-built 1938 Gibson L-10 archtop that he’d gotten from Les. Chet, who employed it on his first recording session for RCA, never forgot the instrument.

“The high end of the neck had an additional six frets under the B and E strings to facilitate playing in the upper register in the key of F,” Atkins recalled in 2000’s Me & My Guitars, which was published shortly before his death from cancer in 2001. “Django had a guitar with a neck like that, and I’m sure that’s why Les wanted it because he was deeply into Reinhardt’s playing. Jim had traded Les out of the guitar, and when he saw how much I liked it, he surprised me by giving it to me. Riding back to Knoxville [from New York] on the train, I was so happy I didn’t know what to do. Every little while, I would open the case just to look at that guitar. I loved the way it looked, and the way it smelled. It was hard to believe it was really mine.”

So it was that unique historical connection with which the two six-string virtuosos from different musical worlds—Paul from jazz and pop, the Tennessee-born Atkins from country—would wax the Grammy-winning Chester & Lester, an effortless, swinging collection of standards that, more than 30 years after its original 1976 release, endures mightily among guitar aficionados everywhere.

According to none other than Les Paul, now 92 years old and still playing his weekly Monday-night gig at the Iridium Jazz Club in midtown Manhattan, the magic of Chester & Lester all came down to language. “  It was a great marriage because we were very different people, probably the two best-known guitarists in the world, and both of us had a lot to say,” Paul relates in the Rich Kienzle-penned liner notes that accompany the July 24 Legacy Recordings reissue of this classic album, which has been expanded to include four previously unreleased tracks.

Paul and Atkins work their magic on songs like the opening “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” with Chet’s dexterous, fluid finger-style approach seamlessly melding with Les’ sharp crystalline tone and Django Reinhardt-inspired lines. It’s the sonic template for what lies ahead: a medley that marries the big-band classic “Moonglow” with the theme to the mid-1950s film “Picnic”; the up-tempo “Caravan,” which Atkins had released on a 1954 LP and whose alternate version appears as a bonus track; and the gorgeous “It Had to Be You,” where Les tastefully accents the melodic lines played by Chet.

But it’s not just the freewheeling musical vibe that gives Chester & Lester its open feel. The casual, often-humorous banter between the two men, kept on tape for posterity at Paul’s suggestion, reveals the true informal nature of the sessions. One minute the witty Paul can be heard offering up some kind of wisecrack about Mel Bay instructional guitar books; the next, Atkins is dryly instructing Paul to increase the tempo on “Avalon.” (“You’ve been playing a long time and I admire you very much,” Atkins tells Paul. “You’ve been my inspiration… but you’re playing the damn thing wrong. You’ve gotta play it a little faster than that.”)

Of course, the verbal give-and-take aside, what ultimately carries the day is the music. Noted music scribe Nat Hentoff wrote the original album liner notes, and the description he offered then remains every bit as valid today: “What’s happening here is high-spirited jamming, a meeting of two quite mighty peers, each of whom has helped expand the possibilities of the guitar, including the sheer fun in playing it. And that’s the word for this set, fun, and virtuosity.”

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