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Chet Atkins’s Lost Album

Jun 23, 2016

In mid-1958 Chet Atkins was multitasking. He was producing records for big-name acts such as Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, and many other RCA Victor artists. He was also busy making records of his own as an artist. On weekends he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and occasionally made concert appearances outside of Nashville. He also had been named head of RCA Victor’s Nashville office and had recently opened an RCA studio.

While fishing for ideas for his next album, Atkins thought of his brother Jim, who had been a guitarist and vocalist in the Les Paul Trio in the 1930s and early ’40s and who later worked with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. Chet thought highly of his older brother and felt that a collection of songs by the pair would make a good album.

RCA’s studio—known today as Historic RCA Studio B—had just been outfitted with new equipment designed for stereo recording, including a new console, an Ampex two-track recorder, and an Ampex three-track recorder. The recordings pairing Chet and his brother Jim would be the first stereo sessions held in Nashville.

Recording for the project would be split between two sessions. The first would be to record Jim’s vocal numbers, and the second would cover Chet’s instrumental songs.

On July 24, 1958, the two brothers entered RCA Studio B along with some of Nashville’s A-team musicians: Bob Moore on bass, Floyd Cramer on piano, and Buddy Harman on drums. Chet served as producer with Bob Ferris as recording engineer. They recorded six songs, mostly pop standards that seemed to fit Jim’s singing style.

For the last song, “Swanee River,” Chet decided to try out a Gretsch 6120 guitar that he had outfitted with stereo pickups which sent the top three strings to one channel, and the bottom three to the other. Chet thought this might work well with the studio’s new stereo equipment. The fast-paced arrangement of “Swanee River” featured Chet’s lightning-speed guitar work, weaving in and out of Jim’s vocal. The stereo guitar Chet played gave the effect of two guitars playing on the finished track.

On August 29, Chet returned to RCA Studio B to record five instrumentals for the album. More pop standards were chosen for Chet’s solo sides. Chet brought along his stereo Gretsch 6120 and the same musicians from the July 24 session returned to accompany him.

One more instrumental was needed for the album, and Chet chose the song “Slinky” which he had recorded on May 3, 1958, before the stereo equipment was installed at Studio B.

When the Atkins boys were done, the project was titled My Brother Sings, and the album was prepared for release. The cover was designed with both mono and stereo catalog numbers. Chet wrote liner notes for the album’s back cover. In the October 1958 edition of the Chet Atkins fan club newsletter, he wrote that My Brother Sings was set for release in February 1959. The record made it all the way to at least one of RCA Victor’s pressing plants, but for reasons that no one seems to know, was never released to the public. RCA Victor stopped the project and albums that had been pressed were to be destroyed. Atkins wrote in his June 1959 fan club newsletter that the album most likely would not be released.

Four of the instrumentals that had been slated for My Brother Sings ended up on the Chet’s album Mister Guitar, released in late 1959, while the other two instrumentals recorded during the sessions went unissued. Five of the songs recorded with Jim Atkins’s vocals were finally released on Chet Atkins’s album The Guitar Genius, on the RCA budget label Camden, in 1963.

Somehow, a few copies of My Brother Sings, thought to have been destroyed, ended up in the hands of collectors. In 2012, an original copy sold in an online auction for $8,100.

My Brother Sings was released finally by reissue label Sundazed Music for Record Store Day in April 2015. The LP was issued in stereo on 180-gram vinyl, with a reproduction of the proposed original cover. The Sundazed edition was limited to a run of only 2,000 making it an instant collectable.

The long-awaited release of My Brother Sings was met with excitement and rave reviews from collectors and audiophiles alike for its sound quality. Sundazed owner and CEO Bob Irwin remastered the album for release. “I located the original master tape in Sony Music’s archives and noted that the album master was in perfect condition; it looked and sounded like it hadn’t been touched or played in decades, 100 percent intact. I didn’t have to do much detail work on this tape at all. In the case of our release, what you hear is exactly what’s on the master tape.  Chet and the original crew did an indescribably fantastic job with naturally great instincts on how to create stereo separation—stereo recording being a format that was clearly in its infancy. This album is an honest to goodness real-life musical experience; it’s like sitting right in front of Chet while he’s playing.”

—Michael Manning

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