Chet Atkins’ Little Black Book (of Songs)
By Fred W. Gretsch
From the outside, it looks like an everyday, ordinary pocket-sized memo book. The kind you can still buy at any office supply store. Its black leather cover is worn around the edges and it’s scuffed from years of being put in coat pockets, briefcases, suitcases – and even guitar cases. Just like the man who bought it, the book’s cover is understated and unassuming. But once opened, you’re given a fascinating glimpse into the musical journey of the book’s original owner: Chet Atkins.
Chet bought this memo book in 1950 when he played with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters act on KWTO, a radio station in Springfield, Missouri. You see “Chester A. Atkins, Feb. 12, 1950, Springfield” written in pencil on the first page. Chet started out using this book to select songs for the daily morning radio show, and the many public appearances Chet and the Carter family made across Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
When Chet first created his list, the songs were typed on loose-leaf paper and organized in alphabetical order. Many included the songwriter and if it was licensed through BMI or ASCAP. As new songs were added, Chet wrote them down by hand with whatever ink pen or pencil he had on him at the time. Some of the songs were written neatly, others hurriedly, and some included the key they were played in. It’s also heartwarming to see several scribbled pencil drawings throughout the book made by Chet’s young daughter, Merle.
In addition to being a master guitarist, Chet was famous for the vast number of songs and song styles he could play. There are 475 songs listed in this book alone. 475! And they include a wide range of genres: classical, blues, country, ragtime, bluegrass, pop, and even Spanish-influenced. It’s mind blowing.
It’s also a treat seeing songs listed that played a part in launching the successful Gretsch – Chet Atkins guitar endorsement in the mid-1950s. “Mr. Sandman” and “Silver Bell,” two instrumental hit singles from 1955, were hand-written in the book along with “Country Gentleman,” a signature song that became both Chet’s nickname and the name of his top-of-the-line Gretsch guitar model introduced in 1958.
You also recognize dozens of songs in the book that made their way onto Chet’s RCA Victor albums of the 1950s and early 1960s. These songs would have been recorded on a variety of Gretsch Chet Atkins Model guitars built at our Brooklyn factory: 6120s, prototype 6120s custom-built for Chet, and, of course, his iconic 1959 Country Gentleman, considered the most recorded guitar in music history.
Chet liked surprising his friends with little gifts and tokens of appreciation, and no one was more surprised than his longtime bandleader and confidant, Paul Yandell, at the 1996 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention. After awarding John Knowles with a CGP (Certified Guitar Player) Award, Chet pulled the black book out of a hat, which had been placed on a stool onstage, and presented it to an unsuspecting Paul.
Paul’s wife, Marie, and son, Micah, have been friends of mine for years, and shared that Paul had no knowledge of the song book until Chet gave it to him and told him the story behind it. When Paul got home that night, he sat down and looked through the book page-by-page, astonished at all the songs Chet had played through the years.
Marie also shared that the book was a sentimental treasure to Paul, and felt Chet gave it to her husband in appreciation of the deep friendship the two guitarists had formed from playing together for more than 20 years. Micah added that it represented the bond, respect, and love his father and Chet had for each other. They were as close as two brothers, and his father always looked up to Chet and considered him a father figure.
The book is an interesting diary of the most important decade in Chet Atkins’ musical career. In the summer of 1950, just a few months after creating his song book, Chet was lured to Nashville and never looked back. In the 10 years that followed, Chet established himself as a successful recording artist, producer, and record executive; created the sophisticated “Nashville Sound;” and had his name on a popular line of Gretsch guitars. He also earned the nickname of “Mr. Guitar.”
Chet influenced and inspired thousands of young guitarists. In fact one of the songs Chet typed in the book, “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Guitar,” was heard on the radio one night by a young guitarist in Kentucky. Chet’s song changed the teenager’s life, and he became obsessed with Chet’s trademark fingerpicking style and bought as many Chet Atkins records as he could afford. The name of that Kentucky teenager was Paul Yandell.
How fitting that 40 years later, Chet would entrust Paul with his old song book which included not only “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Guitar,” but dozens of other songs Chet and Paul had performed together for decades. What a gesture of friendship and love to the man Chet described as not only a great guitar player, but also someone who knew everything Chet had done and could do it better. Classic Chet.