WHEN ELVIS Presley recorded ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, the record that launched him to adulation level in Great Britain, he really tore the studio apart.
In fact, said Chet Atkins, guitarist and country music producer, he leaped and squirmed so much “he split his pink britches right down the back.”
This was back in the mid-Fifties, when Elvis had just moved from the Sun label which discovered him to RCA Victor and was recording tracks with Chet at Victor’s Nashville studios.
Chet, who was in London last week for a guest spot on This Is Tom Jones for ATV (his first ever working trip to Great Britain), recalled the incident with a smile at his dressing room at ATV’s Elstree Studios last week.
“Elvis had on a pair of bright pink britches and when he was singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ he split ’em… right down the back. He had to take them off and put on another pair and threw the old ones outside the studios. One of the girls who worked right there at the studios asked who they belonged to. I told her Elvis and said ‘pick ’em up and keep ’em, they’ll be worth a fortune soon.’ She didn’t believe me then, but ten years later she tried to get on What’s My Line because she had a pair of Elvis’s pants! She didn’t get on the show.”
Tennessee-born Atkins has been in country music all his life. He started playing the guitar before he was ten and became a professional country musician at around 16, working both as a backing musician and later as a star musician in his own right.
He was working in studios in Nashville a lot and Chet recalled that in those days, the city was far from the music industry mecca it has become today.
“You could get an acre of land for 3,000 dollars. Today it would be ten times that. In the last ten years, too, the record and music business side of the city has boomed and we now have studios owned by all the major American record companies.”
It was doing studio work as a guitarist — that famed Atkins finger-style acoustic guitar work is on many Nashville-produced records — that he started doing some producing. This increased until he became the best-known producer in Nashville.
But basically, he still considers himself primarily a guitarist. “I’m a musician first and a record producer second. Producing was something that I sort of got involved in by accident,” he said. “I’ve done it for a long time now, and frankly, I’m getting a little tired of it. In the future, I’ll be handing a lot of the record work over to three other guys and be doing a lot more shows.”
He works mainly with pianist Floyd Cramer and saxist Boots Randolph, and Chet is looking forward to playing his guitar a lot more in the coming months.
Not that he’s ever stopped playing.
Nashville, of course, is the home of the Grand Ole Opry country radio programme, which has been a hit programme since it started way back in 1924.
“I have played the Opry for ten years. I was on it for ten years before that and got fed up.”
While in London, Chet was due to guest yesterday at the opening night of London’s Nashville Room and this will be the first time he’s actually appeared in front of a British audience.
“I’m going to play a few numbers at the Room and I’m looking forward to playing here for the first time. I’ve had offers to tour here in the past, but they’ve never come far enough in advance for me to take the engagements. But with less studio commitments in the future, I’m hoping I can make it here.”
© Alan Walsh, Melody Maker, 8 March 1969