Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chet Atkin's Wife Leona Passes

Parts of this post are from the Cincinnati Enquirer and Nashville Tennessean

Chet Atkins is my favorite guitar player. And though he passed away eight years ago, I am still learning guitar from listening to his recordings and as of late watching his performances on Youtube. Chet's wife passed away earlier this week.

Leona Atkins was 85 and had been ill for some time.

The list of her pallbearers and honorary pallbearers for Leona Johnson Atkins certainly shows she and her family were highly respected and loved by the Country Music Community. Helping carry the former singer were Vince Gill, the Everly Brothers and Ray Stevens.

Mrs. Atkins was born Leona Johnson in Williamsburg Ohio in 1924 and grew up in Clermont County. She met her husband, guitar legend, fiddle player, record producer and industry executive Chet Atkins, while performing on WLW radio. She and her sister were called "Fern and LaVern" on the show. Leona was LaVern and sister Lois was Fern.

She used to tell the story of how she and her husband met at WLW on the stations program, Boone County Jamboree. She felt sorry for him as he sat, alone, practicing so much, so she decided to befriend him. She gave up her career after they married in 1946. As an aside, Leona's sister met and married another WLW musician from that same era, mandolin player Kenneth Burns. Burns was Jethro of the country comedy duo, Homer and Jethro.

In her days with Bill McCluskey's road show, she talked about how much traveling they did and how long those days were. They traveled to shows throughout the Midwest almost every night of the week, but had to be back in Cincinnati each morning for the WLW show. They often drove all night in their Studebaker bus, singing along the way.

"Her family, and her and her sister, Lois, did a lot of county fairs around the area," said Mike Martini, a local broadcast historian who sat at her kitchen table in Nashville three or four years ago to do an oral history interview. "They just loved to perform."

Atkins allowed Martini to copy her scrapbook. She told him that if her husband were sitting with them there, he'd have a guitar in his hand and be playing while he spoke.

In an article by Vince Gill, he tells the story of visiting Mrs. Atkins after Chet's passing. Leona remained close to many of the players that Chet had befriended and taken under his wing. Leona knew how much Gill like a particular guitar in Chet's collection. It was an old Martin 00-28. Upon leaving her home she presented Gill with the guitar. He says he was stunned and so appreciative at her generousity.

She's a big part of what made Chet great," said Gill. "They were an inseparable pair: When you saw him, you saw her.

"She and Chet were a team," said recording artist Steve Wariner, a longtime friend. "She'd tell stories about the hours he'd practice, how he'd play and fall asleep with the guitar still in his lap. She'd take it out of his lap and put him to bed." I'd come over and she'd always say, 'Sing me something,' Wariner said. "And when I started having hits, there was nobody happier for me. But she had such pride in the music Chet made. She'd say, 'Nobody did it like Chester.' "

"I have always teased (Leona) about coming on the show and singing a duet with me, which she has always declined to do," wrote Garrison Keillor, host of radio show A Prairie Home Companion, on the show's Web site. "She and her sister... were a fine sister duet act, doing sentimental songs and novelty tunes, and when I came to write the screenplay for A Prairie Home Companion (the movie), it occurred to me to put a sister duet in it and name them for Leona and Lois. I sort of thought of Meryl Streep as the Leona character, so I gave my character a little wistful romance with her."

Atkins is survived by her daughter, Merle Atkins Russell, of Nashville; granddaughter Amanda Sawyer; grandson Jonathan Russell; great-grandsons Jamie and Will Sawyer; a brother, Earl Johnson, of Hamilton; and five sisters; Norma Jean Fox and Shirley Kautz, both of Dayton, Virginia Komo and Catherine Smith, both of Milford; and Florence Ritchey of Mt. Orab.

1 comment:

Raizor's Edge said...

Jethro and Chet shared a room at the YMCA in early 1946. (As Homer was married, he had a house with his wife and son.) They had known each other since Chet hung around the WNOX studios in Knoxville in the late 1930s where Homer & Jethro worked. Lois Burns, Leona's twin sister, passed away from diabetes in April 1989, two months after Jethro's death from prostate cancer.