Remembering the 40th Anniversary of Paul Yandell becoming Chet Atkins’ right hand man
By Fred Gretsch
Forty years ago, three of the finest fingerpickers–Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Paul Yandell–participated in a friendly band member swap. Yandell, a guitar virtuoso and the consummate sideman, had been in Jerry Reed’s band for nearly five years. By 1975 though, Jerry was focused more on growing his acting career than recording and touring, and no longer needed a band.
Paul visited his friend and mentor, Chet Atkins, and asked if he needed a guitar player. Chet said he might, but would need Jerry’s permission first before hiring him. Fortunately, Jerry gave Chet his blessing and told Chet something Mr. Guitar already knew: Paul Yandell was the best rhythm guitarist and accompanist in the business.
A week later, Paul was in a rented tuxedo and playing onstage alongside his guitar hero, Chet Atkins, with The Jackson Symphony in Mississippi. It would be the first of countless shows Chet and Paul would play together over the next 25 years.
I was fortunate to be friends with both Chet Atkins and Paul Yandell. It was amazing how similar their backgrounds, interests, and personalities were. They could have easily been brothers. Like Chet, Paul came from a humble, rural upbringing and had a passion–some might call it an obsession–for guitars, music, and electronics. In fact when Paul was a teenager, he built his own radio device and first heard Chet Atkins playing “I’ve Been Working On The Guitar” on a Cincinnati radio station. Chet’s fingerstyle playing had a huge impact on Paul and he started buying as many Chet Atkins records as he could afford.
Paul’s dream of being a professional musician came true when he joined the Louvin Brothers in the mid-1950s. He was an accomplished guitarist with a style similar to the popular Chet Atkins. Paul even played a Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body electric in honor of his guitar hero.
After a brief stint in the Army, Paul joined the Kitty Wells band in the early 1960s and even wrote her 1965 hit “I’ll Repossess My Heart.” By 1970, Paul was tired of the road, burned out, and looking for a new musical challenge. That challenge came from Jerry “Guitar Man” Reed. Jerry and Paul were Army buddies and Jerry was a rising guitar and singing star whose biggest admirer was Chet Atkins.
Joining Jerry Reed’s band turned out to be an important career move for Paul. In addition to learning new guitar techniques from the second best fingerpicker alive, Jerry also taught Paul the art of recording and engineering, and helped Paul get session work in Nashville. The biggest prize Paul received from being in Jerry Reed’s band was the opportunity to be around and become better friends with Chet Atkins. Jerry and Chet were very close and Chet produced several of Jerry’s albums and the two also recorded together. Paul said he “went to college” working for Jerry Reed, and all he learned from Jerry helped qualify him to work for Chet.
About the only difference between Paul and Chet was that Paul didn’t want the spotlight or the fame; he preferred being a sideman and just playing music. That was the role he loved. Paul had outstanding rhythm and timing and was a good improviser. He knew exactly what to play and was there to complement Chet onstage or in the studio, not to get in his way or upstage him. Paul said many times that working for Chet Atkins was a dream job. He said he never got over the thrill of going out on stage with Chet and that no one had a better job or worked for a nicer, more caring person. In their 25 years together, Paul and Chet became very close friends, as did their families. Chet was quoted as saying that next to his wife, Leona, Paul probably knew him better than anybody.
Being Chet Atkins’ right hand man required Paul to have many valuable roles: accompanist, bandleader, songwriter, guitar technician, guitar and amp repairman, and more. Like Chet, Paul was self-taught and very knowledgeable of electronics and enjoyed tinkering with guitars and amplifiers at his home workbench. Paul and Chet spent countless hours exploring ways to improve the sound and playability of the electric guitar. Paul always carried tools with him whenever he and Chet toured and fixed many amps and guitars that were damaged inflight. Paul even built Chet a solid body guitar he called “The Peaver”, and when Chet wanted his priceless 1950 D’Angelico guitar restored back to an electric, he trusted his friend Paul Yandell with the project because he knew it would be done right.
After Chet passed away in 2001, I wanted to honor Chet’s legacy by working with Paul to faithfully recreate Chet’s famous 1959 Country Gentleman, the guitar on which he recorded most of his RCA hits. Paul loved the idea because he thought it was a great way to remember Chet and also gave guitar players a chance to own a copy of one of the world’s most historic guitars. Paul worked diligently to measure Chet’s original guitar, read the pickups, and spec everything for the Gretsch production team. The result was the G6122-1959 Nashville Classic, a name Paul suggested. We were both very satisfied with the end result.
We are forever grateful to Paul for his important role in bringing Chet Atkins’ name back to Gretsch guitars. Chet’s family trusted Paul’s advice and like many music fans, Paul believed Chet’s best work was performed on Gretsch guitars and that Chet and Gretsch should be reunited. Announcing the release of new Gretsch Chet Atkins signature guitars in 2007 was one of my personal career highlights.
It was fitting that Paul received the fifth and final Chet Atkins CGP Award in 2011, only a few months before he passed away. Chet’s family presented the award to Paul during a ceremony at the Gretsch-sponsored Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. With Paul’s passing, we lost a good friend, and the music world said goodbye to one of the most unassuming master guitarists that ever put on a thumb pick.