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Working With Chet Atkins – An Interview With Pianist-Arranger Tony Migliore

Working With Chet Atkins – An Interview With Pianist-Arranger Tony Migliore

Tony Migliore began his musical studies as a child and enrolled in the renowned Julliard School of music where he studied piano, theory and composition. He continued his musical studies at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. Tony later went on to serve as pianist and arranger for the United States Military Academy Band at West Point. During this period he also worked on several Broadway and off Broadway performances including “Oh Calcutta and “Promises, Promises”. After finishing his military service commitment he moved to Nashville, Tennessee where his musical experience expanded greatly. As a pianist, Tony Migliore has performed on hundreds of hit record albums earning him numerous awards. In 1978 Tony began to work for Chet Atkins as his piano player after the departure of Randy Goodrum. As Chet Atkins performances changed to include more symphony concerts, Tony was tapped to begin writing the musical arrangements for Chet. Over a twenty year period, Tony wrote over 50 arrangements for Chet Atkins. Starting in 1992, Tony became pianist for pop/folk songwriter Don McLean (“American Pie”, “Vincent”, “Castles in the Air” and many others). Tony lives in Nashville and continues to tour with Don McLean as well as records and produces music at the Chelsea Music Group studio in Brentwood, TN. This interview was conducted in June of 2008, following Don McLean’s sold out performance at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach, VA.

TR: When did you start to work with Chet?

TM: The first time I ever worked with Chet was in 1978. I was his substitute piano player. Randy Goodrum was playing piano with him, and Randy had some other things going on at that time. He suddenly had three hit records all at once — huge, huge songs, and he started getting busy doing other things, so he asked me if I would go and substitute with Chet’s band, and I said, “Okay.”

TR: So Randy knew you, but Chet didn’t?

TM: Yes, Randy knew me. Chet knew who I was – I had subbed with the Music Masters festival once or twice playing with Boots Randolph, and he knew who I was, but we never really spent any time together. And when Randy asked me to do it, he just sent me over some tapes. We had no rehearsal, I just got the soundtracks and played a couple of things.

TR: You learned from just listening to the tapes?

TM: I listened to the tapes, and made a few little chord charts with things that I wasn’t familiar with, and so it was very laid back and so easy — not in terms of the music, but just easy in terms of getting along with Chet and the guys.

TR: Do you remember what some of those early songs were?

TM: Well, he did the stuff that he was most known for, cuts like “Windy and Warm” and “Snowbird” – those things, plus he did what he called “The Medley of My Hit”, which was a bunch of things that he produced on other artists. One was Perry Como’s version of Don McLean’s song, “And I Love You So.” Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me.” And “Dream” by the Everly Brothers. I remember also that Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go.” was in there too.

There were some classic songs. Everyone in Nashville knew Chet – if not personally, by his reputation. He was on this lofty throne somewhere way up above the rest of us. Come to know the man, and he was the most humble, self-deprecating person you’d ever meet.

He couldn’t believe people actually paid money to come hear him play. He said, “I’m just a guitar player. I don’t do anything – I don’t sing, I don’t jump around.” So he was always humble.

He’d look out at the people in a theater – just full of people – all adoring fans. They were backstage, and they were looking for autographs and they were everywhere.

When I first started playing with him, I honestly didn’t know a lot about Chet. Of course, I knew he was one of the head honchos at RCA, a well-reputed producer and he was this famous guitar player. But, being a keyboard player, I didn’t pay too much attention to guitars.

However, when you move to Nashville you can’t NOT pay attention to guitars.

Early on I had a tendency to play a little busy. He would tell me, “Play a little something, but don’t get carried away, just relax.” His drummer at the time was Randy Hauser who had just replaced Larrie Londin. Randy and I became friends, and they played so simple on the backbeat and so much more expressive — something we all learned when we moved to a place like Nashville, and I moved here to become studio musician, and I learned from some of the best, including Chet, Pig Robbins, who could say more with three notes than most people can say with a hundred. So that was a good learning experience from a kid who had gone through some of the finest music schools and had all the technical chops in the world at the time. I realized I didn’t have to run up and down the keyboard like Van Cliburn to make a statement.

TR: Van Cliburn, was he the pianist who also did jokes?

TM: That was Victor Borge, who I absolutely loved.

TR: You told me earlier you had “lay out” at some points.

TM: Yeah, the saying was, “Know when to lay out.” You sometimes say more musically when you lay out. You actually say more.

TR: I’ve always believed just from my own experience that when I’m enjoying music, I’m deeply feeling something.

TM: If you’re not feeling it, you’re dead. You’re not really hearing and experiencing the music.

In a case like Don McLean, I noticed when I first started working with him that his breathing becomes part of the song. It’s not just taking a breath because you’re out of air, but it becomes part of the song and he places his breaths in strategic places to make it effective.

This is a pretty smart thing to do, and sometimes he’ll elongate a note and then take an extra large breath and when you listen back to that, that works.

I work with a lot of singers in the studio, and many of them don’t really know how to emote (half of them don’t know how to sing), but I have to teach them expression and I tell them too that breathing is part of the song.

You shouldn’t be afraid to take a breath and have it be audible. We all breathe, we all have to breathe. It’s okay as a singer to breathe and sigh while singing. And as I said it can be an important component of the song.

Chet “breathed” in his guitar music with his style of playing. There was a beauty in the playing, the pauses and the phrasing of notes.

We did a show one time back in ’78 or ’79 in New York with Les Paul, who’s half of the Chester and Lester albums that came out, and we went up there and played at The Bottom Line. And here was Chet sitting on a stool with his legs crossed, just calmly playing as he did, and when it came to be Les Paul’s turn he had every knob on the amp cranked up to 10, and then he jumped around and did all this stuff, and the contrast — and I mean no disrespect to Les Paul because he was a genius for what he did. But the contrast between the two was incredible. Chet was like John Wayne in the movie “The Quiet Man”.

TR: I’ve noticed in Don McLean’s singing of Vincent that he’s singing and you think it’s time to go on to the next phrase, but he’ll kind of wait.

TM: You can’t rush it. Chet was that way too, when he’s ready for the next phrase, he’ll go to it. Of course, on rhythm kind of things, that wasn’t the case, but otherwise the tempo and feel can be varied to make the song more beautiful or for it to work better.

I remember the very first gig I played with Chet. He did the first half by himself with acoustic guitar. He would play a few songs, then Paul Yandell would come up and play with him for the rest of the first half, and right near the end of the first half, he would do “Vincent”. I learned later that Chet always had a love for Don’s song writing.

This was long before I ever knew Don McLean and had any thoughts about working with him and knowing him and I thought, “What is that song? That’s a beautiful song.”

It took me a moment and I went, “Oh, that’s ‘Starry Starry Night,'” and my ears perked up and I listened intently to Chet playing it and remember thinking, “This guy is a player – this guy is really playing.”

Who was I? I was 28 or 29 years old at the time. Who was I to question the genius of a man like this? But I guess when you come out of the educational institutions I came out of, you’re a little jaded. You think, ” A guitar player, what does he know?” But then to hear him play with the sensitivity of a real classical player, it was amazing.

TR: (laughs) Well, just listen to him play “Blue Angel” or the Barrios song “Choro de Saudade”

TM: Yeah, of course. Or “Recuerdos Del Alhambra”.

And I was so fortunate to come along at the time I did, because it wasn’t a year after I started working with him just as a piano player he said to me, “You write arrangements, don’t you?”

He said, “Can you write me an arrangement on so and so?” – I don’t remember the tune. He said, “We’ll do it next time we work with an orchestra.” And I did that and it turned out very well.

And Steve Wariner was touring with us and he asked me to do an arrangement of one of his songs which Chet was featuring in the show, and it worked out great, then Chet would ask for another arrangement, and another, and they were all working well.

About a year later, Chet asked, “Can you direct an orchestra?” He’d been using Albert Coleman, who was at the time I think the conductor of the Atlanta Pops, and had also conducted for the Masters Festivals which featured Chet, Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph. And we were both friends with Chet. But Albert was starting to slow down a little bit, and Chet just wanted to try me out on something.

I remember the first show that he asked me to conduct was with the Rochester Philharmonic. It was very intimidating to me, because that was where I went to school, and there were a bunch of my teachers sitting there in front of me.

I remember one of the French horn players in the symphony was from my school days and he’s looking down over his glasses, like “I know you, I know you!”

But they were all very kind and gracious. We had a fun show. And from that point on I became Chet’s conductor, as well as keyboard player and arranger — for his live stuff. I did one arrangement that we did on record and that was “Dance With Me.” Chet received a Grammy for that song.

TR: And you played that cool piano solo —

TM: I played piano on it, too, right.

TR: For the Chet fan who is going to read this, what does an arranger do for Chet Atkins? Does he bring just a song melody and say, “Pick out all the other parts?”

TM: Yeah, basically, and with Chet, probably the most difficult part was again – not writing something so busy that it got in the way of what he was doing. It needed often to be very subdued background music, almost nonessential, because he would play these things with just the band, and it was fine without an orchestra. He had the orchestra and hopefully, it just added another dimension and made it even more beautiful.

TR: Did you decide what instruments would be part of the orchestra?

TM: Yes. I love to use things like oboes and cellos for certain types of songs. You want those colors and use the orchestra as colors rather than sound, especially with Chet’s style of playing. You don’t want the orchestral arrangement to get in the way, so you don’t write anything too terribly bombastic, unless he’s doing something like “Stars and Stripes Forever – ” then you just copy the John Philip Sousa and forget about it! For something delicate, you want to stay out of the way and just write simple things – just more or less underscore what he’s doing.

TR: It sounds like the relationship grew from fill-in piano player to arranger.

TM: I kind of became the official piano player by proxy. Randy called me for the first show, he called me two weeks later for the next show, he called me a few weeks later for the next show and then he quit calling me, and I just kind of went along.

TR: How did Chet hire people? How was that arranged?

TM: I don’t remember Chet ever actually hiring anybody in the band. Of course, when I came on, Larrie Londin had previously been playing drums and Randy had taken over for Larrie. Randy was there before I was. Henry Strzelecki was still playing bass, and when Henry decided he couldn’t tour anymore that was when they hired Steve Wariner. Actually it was Paul Yandell I believe that hired the newer players.

Except for when Johnny Johnson came with us. Johnny was Floyd Cramer’s bass player, and also the bass player when they did the Masters festival – Floyd and Chet and Boots Randolph, and so Chet was very familiar with Johnny’s playing. Wonderful player, one of the most underrated bass players ever. I think Chet had a hand in bringing Johnny into the group, but basically it was Paul who would make the call.

TR: But does the label or somebody else pay the bills? I mean, who pays for the musicians is my question.

TM: The labels would pay for record arrangements, but as far as his orchestral arrangements, Chet would pay me from his company, I think it was Chet Atkins Enterprises at that time, before later becoming CGP Enterprises.

TR: What was your style like with Chet, I mean, when you worked with him as a collaborator?

TM: I would listen to how he did the song and then out of my head I’d just come up with something, and we’d play it through.

If he particularly didn’t like something, he’d never insult you. He’d be very subtle and say, “Can we leave that part out?”, and I’d say “Sure, no problem.” We can’t have big egos. Everybody has an ego of course, but you learn in our part of the business that you’re going to work with some people who are going to say, “I don’t like that, take it out!”

Chet was much more of a gentleman than that — he would say, “Maybe we can not do this part right here. Wait for this part.” That was his way of saying he didn’t care for that particular part, or maybe say, “Can we change that?”

So it was an easy relationship as far as that was concerned. Pretty much he let me have my own thoughts about the arrangements. If he had something specific he wanted, he’d say, “I’d like you to do something with horns here,” or “Let’s do something rhythmic here.” But other than that, he kind of let you go. It was really nice, and Don McLean is kind of the same way.

Sometimes if Chet didn’t like something, he just wouldn’t perform the song. He really knew what to perform and when.

Over the course the 20 or so years that I worked with him, I probably wrote 50 or 60 different arrangements for him. And he would go in spurts. He’d play some of them for awhile and put them up and play some other ones instead. Then he’d come back to something and say, “We haven’t played that in awhile. Let’s do that one.” It was always nice, because for me, it gave me an opportunity to sharpen my skills in that department, and working with Don McLean just became an extension, because when I first started working with Don, Chet was beginning to slow down.

TR: About what year is this?

TM: I started with Don in ’92.

I was still doing a lot of dates with Chet and when Don asked me if I wanted to do a few dates here and there, I think for the first year or so, I would get maybe half a dozen.

Don had a guitar player that he was using and he would use him most of the time, and then I would come in and do it a couple of shows. I think in all the years I was working with both of them, I only ever had one conflict.

Sometime in the mid-’80’s Darryl Dybka came over. Chet was a good friend of Earl Klugh, and Earl recommended Darryl.

I was pretty busy with recording sessions and Chet said, “Would it be OK with you if I took Darryl out to play keyboards, and you’d be the orchestra conductor or do orchestra dates?” I said, “Sure, that’s perfect.”

Chet did maybe about 40 dates a year and about half of them were with an orchestra and half weren’t. Darryl did the other dates and he would actually even do some of the orchestra dates and I would just go along as conductor.

It was great because when I started working with Don, I was only doing orchestra dates with Chet, so there were not as many conflicts as if I were playing all the dates. In the couple of years where we transitioned, there was really only one conflict of dates I can remember.

TR: Was it a big deal, how was it resolved?

TM: Don said to me, he said, “Why don’t you go with Chet?” Chet said to me, “No, you can go with Don. You go ahead. I’ll use the conductor they have there,” and that was it. It was very simple.

TR: But then by the next gig back, you were back?

TM: Yes, so basically, the other guy was subbing for me.

TR: You know, somebody that’s worked for 20 years with somebody is going to learn a lot. What do you think are some of the things that you’ve learned from Chet?

TM: Chet was definitely the most humble human being I’ve known in this business. I was a young, cocky upstart when I moved to Nashville thinking, well, “I can play this country stuff. It’s nothing. I’ve played Tchaikovsky – I can certainly play country music”.

Chet taught me just by who he was. He taught me that you don’t have to go overboard to sell something. You can be laid back, you can hold back, don’t show all your cards.

He sometimes was kind of reticent around people. He was kind of shy, but very, very, intelligent, and read people very well. He didn’t always say much to them, because you learn a lot more by listening than you do by talking.

He was excellent at reading people. He could read his audience and tell whether they liked what he was doing, or whether he should change directions. He was very good at that.

I learned about production just by listening to some of the things that he did and go, “OK, well why didn’t he add this here?”

Musically, he was a master of understatement. There are so many artists today who I call “musical terrorists”. They throw in the kitchen sink on every stinkin’ song they do, so you have this huge cacophony of noise going on all the time, when a simple solo line would have been more effective. I’m trying to learn and apply that even now as I’m in my 60’s.

Every time I sit down and play with somebody, like now with Don, I try to remember that.

One nice thing about Don McLean is that he lets you do your thing. He doesn’t say, “Play the record.”

He says “Play the song how you feel it. If you screw it up, you screw it up, so tomorrow you do it differently.” Chet was like that. He never commanded you play like the record. There are many, many artists out there that can’t have that. They have to have it sound like the record, ’cause they’re afraid their audience either won’t recognize it, or they won’t like it because it’s not like the record.

Chet was too much of a musician to inhibit you like that. It was a joy to play with him.

And I think I learned about humility. That’s one of the big things I learned from him. I try to apply some of it – I’m not anywhere near perfect. Who of us is? I really miss him, I miss him a lot. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the name George Lunn?

TR: Chet’s road manager, correct?

TM: For many years, and George was a good friend. I just found where he is now. George had a stroke a couple of years ago, so I’ll go out and visit him soon.

George liked to fancy himself a sleight of hand expert, with card tricks, things like that. He was wowing a few people backstage one night many, many years ago, and this fellow Lew Potter happened to be in the crowd and said, “Yeah, that’s really good. I’ve got an old trick that I learned – can I show it to you?” And he did some ridiculous trick, and George says, “OK, alright, alright – you’ve had me. Alright, who are you?” So they became friends and I became friends with them, and he and Steve Wariner used to do card tricks together. Lew incidentally was a huge fan of Chet’s and also a really fine guitar player himself

Steve kind of started learning how to do card tricks, and he got very good at it. He practiced in front of a mirror alot.

But here’s one interesting thing that you may not know. The song we did tonight in Don’s show, “You’re My Little Darlin’ ” , that was a record that Chet played on.

TR: Really?

TM: Yep. We were working on this album with Don back in ’95 or so and Don said, “Do you think we can get Chet to play on any of these songs, maybe just a little guest appearance kind of thing?” and I said, “Let me take a copy over to him and let him listen and see if there’s anything he likes in particular. So I did, and Chet said, “Why don’t you come over to the house. We’ll do it in the basement.”
So we went over one day when Don was in town, and we went to the house, and Chet played the metal resonator, what is it called, the D’Angelico?

TR: DelVecchio?

TM: Sorry, I got my Italians mixed up. Yeah, he played that on there and did the solo. It was a wonderful afternoon.

TR: I loved that song you did tonight, “What would the world be like”.

TM: When I first started working with Don, after the guitar player I mentioned, John Platania left, it was just the two of us. We worked five years like that. He started doing that song, “what would the world be like” and I just did a small string thing. In fact today when I went to his dressing room to get him to come talk to you he was singing that song to himself and it’s a gorgeous song.

TR: You don’t know what’s in a Don McLean set do you – I mean, there’s no set list when you play right?

TM: No. He wings it. Don is another master of reading his audience. He’ll know whether to switch gears or not, and what to play.

TR: You mentioned playing in Chet’s basement. What’s his basement like? I’ve never been in there. Is it just like tape machines, sound board, microphones, etc?

TM: Well, he had an actual little studio built into the basement. A control room with tape machines in there, and he had a small grand piano and guitars just sitting around on stands. You know, he was never more than seven or eight feet away from a guitar. I think that was his lifeline. He always had to have one close by just in case he wanted to strum something.

He would pick a guitar up when something came to him, or if he just felt like he needed to. There was a lot of stuff down there because he was also a tinkerer. He had his ham radio equipment down there, he had a work bench that looked like the back room of a jewelry store where the jeweler would have done his little finite things. It was his own personal production studio.

TR: Probably a sanctuary too.

TM: Yes. It was not something he rented out to other people, but sometimes folks would be invited in to play with him there, and yes it was kind of his sanctuary as well.

TR: He would go down there just to be by himself?

TM: By himself, or bring some guys in to play on a tune, or five tunes, or whatever. We were down doing some of his Christmas album, “East Tennessee Christmas” down there one time, and it was really fun.

TR: Tony, thank you for spending some much time together tonight.

TM: You’re welcome. It feels good to talk about Chet and it brings back great memories, so thank you.