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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Chet Atkins and Les Paul, "Chester and Lester"

Chet Atkins and Les Paul
"Chester and Lester"
RCA (1977)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

Had “Chester and Lester” been recorded 40 years earlier, the duo of Chet Atkins and Les Paul, among the earliest of guitar gods, might have been dubbed the original rock jam band. Unfortunately, the pair didn’t make this album until 1975, long after Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead made waves. Atkins and Paul had been experimenting with guitar tricks long before the ‘60s however. Paul was so bent on creating new sounds, he more-or-less invented the solid body electric guitar.

Listening to the pair screw around with standards that each had recorded previously, one can tell that they are just too fidgety to play a simple riff. Listen on “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” as Atkins does dramatic slides down the neck of his guitar, or on “Lover Come Back To Me” as Paul plays a tremolo solo reminiscent of Dick Dale (although Paul had been doing it far before Dale made it big). The dichotomy of this recording session isn’t a typical lead/rhythm setup. As one guitarist takes the “lead,” the second doesn’t fall back and kneel. Both can be heard fooling around, finger picking and string bending.

Among the most fun tracks are those with a distinct country feel. Both guitarists got their starts in country music and it stuck with them throughout their careers. Tracks like “Caravan” feature prominent 2/4 bass line typical of country music, and “Out of Nowhere” gets some bluesy acoustic strumming from a backup third guitarist.

The recording released is a jam session in the truest sense in that nothing is removed. Atkins and Paul are prone to conversation in the middle of recording, doing so longest in the middle of pianist Randy Goodrum’s solo during “Avalon.” The occasional mistake is left in the final cut as well, because as Paul said, “it sounds good; leave it.”

Every track, aside from the time-switching “Avalon” is slow and relaxing in a jazz guitar style, despite the virtuosos of their time trading licks. By the time the album was released in 1977, many had passed from the country/jazz sound to more psychedelic fare. But again, had this album been released in 1957 instead, it would have stood as a landmark recording.

INTERESTING FACT: Few recall Paul as a country artist as much as they do Atkins, but Paul broke into the music business as a “hillbilly country” singer under the name of “Rhubarb Red.”


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