The History of Rock and Roll, Part 34

If Chet Atkins never met Herbie, there'd be no Dire Straits

Atkins has and still does work in a variety of forms (one of his biggest sellers was a Sixties slab of his versions of Beatles songs). Working for RCA in the Fifties, Atkins, as talent scout and producer, reshaped country music by taking it "uptown," adding strings and lush choruses and echo effects. It was hardly a commercial concession -- no matter what genre he plays in, his style remains true to hillbilly's essence. "After World War II," Atkins explains, "people moved to the cities and never moved back to the country. The music became urbanized and got so appreciated, especially after Elvis, that it was a little different type of music. By bringing it uptown a little bit, getting better songs, everything got stronger in the Sixties. But there's always somebody coming along, the Judds or Ricky Skaggs, playing pure country, acoustic type music that brings us back to where we should be."

Years ago the crowd at a show in West Palm Beach -- where Atkins will play live this Saturday -- shattered the guitarist. Every hillbilly in Florida was at the show. Atkins began with some pop music and a few difficult classical solos, he says in Country Gentleman, "to show off my guitar technique." Someone in the audience screamed, "Gimme some hillbilly music." At that point, Atkins recalled in his book, "I collapsed. It was as though somebody had shot me through the heart. I wanted to cry." Today, Atkins seems to have recovered from the experience. "They served whiskey at that show," he says. "When they serve whiskey, the fans start talking back. I play standards, country, and pop. Everything I do has a country aroma, and I have a country odor myself."

The corny joke is as revealing as Atkins's 1992 status in the music biz. He runs his CGP (for Certified Guitar Player) office and the CGP instructional video program. He has his own PR representation and is handled by two booking agencies, one for regular shows and the other for symphony gigs. He just recently produced and played on Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet album. "I record for CBS," he adds. "Columbia. I mean Sony, or whatever they call it these days. I'm always working on things to record, solos. I played a bunch of symphonies in July. I'm very busy. And golf, I play a little golf."

He also negotiates the old Babe Ruth vs. Mickey Mantle vs. Barry Bonds question. "Musicians, like athletes, are the best they've ever been," he says. "That's the way it is. There's great players, like Mark [Knopfler, with whom he's recorded and who owes his entire existence to Atkins's influence]. Hell, they're everywhere." The analogy continues right into the studio. "Now we have these great big amps," Atkins says. "A Techniques turntable. DAT player. A CD player that runs through the system. Upstairs I got this big old ghetto blaster with CD, I can't remember what brand it is. And in my office there's a receiver and amplifier and tape player. I like cheap outfits that don't hype you, though. I've got these little speakers that I listen [to tracks] on. That way I hear it the way people hear it at home."

In 1973 Atkins was recording with Perry Como, who blamed Atkins's stomach troubles on junk food. A doctor came to the studio and examined the guitarist, using a grand piano as gurney. The pain passed until one day a few weeks later when, after playing golf with Jerry Reed and eating more junk, the problem resumed. It was diagnosed as malignant. The subsequent operation, obviously, was successful. Though his wife Leona brought his guitar to him in his hospital room, Atkins didn't feel much like playing, even after he was released and went home. He kept the instrument around as a security blanket. Soon he began playing again. He wrote in his book, "I go home every night and get my guitar and practice until I go to sleep with it in my lap, as I have always done."

"I can't smoke cigars," Atkins says today. "They made my heart do a haircut and shave. It was an intestinal malignancy. So far I've got through it. There was some lady country fan I'd see around town, and she'd go, `Hey, Chet, how's your cancer?' But I'll be playing my Gibson, picking and singing down there, denying my affair with Dolly Parton."

Like Atkins, Herbie Cooper, born in Bayonne, New Jersey, made his career on live radio, at first in Tennessee, later in Miami, where he also played in nightclubs and other fine venues of the day, like the Silver Slipper speakeasy, mostly with a trio. On WIOD radio he had the Breakfast Club show. "We did it in our pajamas," Cooper recalls. "It was about three minutes of music and a bunch of commercials." He's long since retired, living now in South Carolina, out in the country. He's 87 years old, but unlike Atkins, he still enjoys his cigars, sitting on the front porch and, when pressed, recalling the good ol' days, Homer and Jethro, Archie Campbell, Roy Acuff, and, of course, Chet Atkins and their fateful encounter.

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