THE GREAT CURVE 008
curated by Todd Berryman
The Best of Chet Atkins (1964)
One of the albums left behind by my birth father was a monaural copy of The Best of Chet Atkins on vinyl. In the ensuing years after that parting, I thought that the stereo version might be the definitive approach, and I thought, why THIS? But as time went on, I realized that I had the definitive vision in my hands all along. I say that realizing that most people consider a stereo version of any album AS the defining version, but with work by Otis Redding or Sam and Dave and many many more with the mono edition as the “right” version (in their cases because the hit played on mono AM radio and the stereo were often two different takes of the same song), that’s kind of provably wrong. In this case, some of The Best of Chet Atkins‘s songs were recorded in an era when the mono version was the only one, that handful of songs on this collection being laid down when there was no other option. (In the stereo edition of this album, the songs are in the dreaded “electronically rechanneled for stereo” format, which means one of a couple possibilities: either one side of the stereo image has reverb added, or the song is split to be more heavily treble on one side and heavily bass on the other. With RCA Records releases from the time, it’s usually the former, as evidenced by the trick being used on Elvis’ Golden Records, among others, for example.)
This album has been in my life in some form or another since I was three. Falling for the hype of compact disc sounding better, I finally caved in and bought a two-disc collection of Chet Atkins’ stuff in 1993, but it only had three songs from that 1964 best-of, and another in an alternate, later version. (Truthfully, “Swedish Rhapsody” was the main reason I bought the collection, and the mastering was so muted compared to the vinyl that I barely listened to it.)
So, needless to say, that EXTREMELY overplayed monaural album was falling to shreds, practically, by the time I hit age 30, and I had made a tape copy to let it take most of the potential abuse. As luck had it, within a couple of years of that, around 2002-ish, I stumbled across the original vinyl of The Best of Chet Atkins in a pawn shop in some small town in Indiana – and I’m not being coy here, I honestly don’t remember which town it was, only somewhere along the way to Terre Haute – and the store had two copies, the stereo being priced at seven dollars, the mono ten. Of course, I went for the mono. And it was practically virginal; I was really thrown for a loop seeing it, because it looked like it fell out of a time warp.
A note here for the Chet Atkins haters, who think of him only as Mr. Easy Listening: this is a man who produced some of Elvis Presley’s early work, and played on sessions for the Everly Brothers…any man who played at the dawn of rock and roll on some of the most iconic songs of the era deserves more credit, so show some respect. That’s all I’m saying.
SIDE 1: IN WHICH TODD PICKS UP A GUITAR FOR THE FIRST TIME, AND THEN PRETTY MUCH IMMEDIATELY PUTS IT BACK DOWN AGAIN
“Jitterbug Waltz” started off the album, taken from the album Chet Atkins in Hollywood. There were two different versions of the source recording, the first issued in 1959, the redone version in 1961; the one from The Best was the latter. I always loved the descending guitar line on that song.
Then to “Peanut Vendor” as the second track. It’s a cover of a Stan Kenton song that, I might suggest, slays the original orchestral take, in part thanks to the percussion, reminiscent of someone banging rhythmically on a can of Planter’s. That song would always make me hungry for cocktail peanuts as a result…in fact, it still does. Original from The Other Chet Atkins.
Third up was “Django’s Castle” (aka “Manoir des Mes Rêves” in the Django Reinhardt version), including Boots Randolph on a relatively restrained sax line, far removed from the man of “Yakety Sax” fame. The song’s flow takes the original 78rpm feel of Django’s recording and turns into something for the – at the time – new era, not only demonstrating a showcase for guitar (for Reinhardt) but as a demonstration of the talents of the Nashville session pros of the late 50s/early 60s.
“Blue Ocean Echo” follows on Side 1, a great exploration of effects in an era that was not really known for them.
Now we get into the trickier stuff on the side, with “Yankee Doodle Dixie” as the fifth song. Chet Atkins’ technical proficiency is probably most on display here. Listen carefully, because it’s a master class in intertwining melody, with “Dixie” on the treble strings of the guitar and “Yankee Doodle” in the bass strings. It was one of those moments, in my early days of attempting to play guitar, when I heard him playing this, and then me…setting the instrument down and backing away slowly. 🙂 The fact that he’s playing all of this at the same time, on one guitar is absolutely mind-blowing to me. I mean, yeah, easy listening and all that, but DAMN.
And we close the side with what is probably my all-time favorite song by Chet Atkins, the reason I invested in the compact disc set called The RCA Years in my record store days in the 1990s. I wish I could tell you why this song pops at me so much…but it comes down to a favorite melody, ingrained since birth.
SIDE 2: BLUEGRASS PROS TO CLASSICAL ON ELECTRIC GUITAR
We open Side 2 with “Vanessa” – my girlfriend hears this as something like the missing theme to The Jetsons. 🙂
The second song is the almost-intentionally misspelled “Trambone”…with Chet playing sliding notes on guitar that are reminiscent of the actual trombone it seems to be named for, originally from the album Down Home.
At this point, in case you didn’t buy the Atkins take on Reinhardt, he whips out a version of “Malagueña” (a 1928 standard) rendered on electric guitar, just to drop your jaw for you. It’s from a 1956 album, Finger Style Guitar.
Then to “Meet Mr. Callaghan” with orchestral accompaniment written by Dennis Farnon. It’s another song from Chet Atkins in Hollywood.
1949’s “Main Street Breakdown” follows, with a little help from the bluegrass duo Homer and Jethro, and Anita Carter of the Carter Family on upright bass, none of whom are credited on The Best of Chet Atkins.
And “Country Gentleman” wraps up the side, a small ensemble performance. Later collections feature an orchestral version with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. I’ve always preferred the less-embellished take.
This album was one that got played fairly constantly in the years since my parents’ divorce. At first, I’d like to say it was nostalgia, but to be fair, I was pretty young during the parting of the ways…and so for me it’s probably more a function of the talent on display. The Best of Chet Atkins was simply, in spite of its easy listening heritage, a great recording of an amazing guitar player, covering a baker’s dozen years’ worth of material. It’s never been that far from me, no matter how abused, in one version or another, and the fact that it’s not recognized as some of the most astonishing guitar that’s ever been committed to vinyl is a bit of a heartbreaker.