Tommy VanAtta doesn’t look old enough to have played music in a band for 50 years.
But as original founder and member of The Chessmen group, he can well testify May 30 will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the musical group that’s still playing better than 100 dates a year across the southern U.S.
“Except for our gig dates, I’ve never strayed too far from my home place either,” said VanAtta. “I was born in the Donelson area of Tennessee, went to elementary school there and graduated from Donelson High School. A football scholarship got me started in MTSU, and I graduated with my major in health and physical education. But music put me through college in the form of a group called the Apopee’s out of Clarksville. If you look that name up in the dictionary, it says ‘point at which the moon is farthest from the earth.’”
By the time VanAtta finished college, he knew he had to have a band of his own. He formed The Chessmen in 1964.
“When we first started, we had a full horn section and were doing the ‘Golden Oldies’ from Motown, Chicago, Kool & the Gang, groups like that,” said VanAtta. “We played extensively all over the south. We never missed a beat when it came to playing the southern venues. In the ’70s, we played the Starlight every Sunday night in Nashville.”
He said the original band consisted of himself, Mike Catalono, David Adams, two brothers, Joe and Wayne Veach, and Bill Vernon.
“They were the original members, and we cut out first record in 1967, ‘How Sweet It Is.’ It made the Top 40 list and made us really popular throughout the south on jukeboxes, John R. on WLAC Radio, etc.” said VanAtta. “It was recorded at Woodland Studio in Nashville and put out on the ABET label.”
Since its birth 50 years ago, The Chessmen has performed at every type of venue, including concerts, conventions, corporate parties, major golf tournaments, fundraisers and special events. They have not only survived all the musical changes during those years, but also continue to please their audiences.
As is evidenced by those who have seen and heard The Chessmen, the band’s endless repertoire features some of the most popular and memorable tunes from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, as well as popular new adult contemporary and country tunes. The band’s popularity was built on their desire to entertain the audience along with the kind of music and show that fits the occasion.
Like some of the other top bands in their market, The Chessmen perform their dance music in a fast-paced, non-stop style, but there’s more to The Chessmen than that. Along with one of the largest repertoires of any performing band today, The Chessmen also include Las Vegas-style floorshows that have become a popular and distinctive trademark for the band. Guests at the Birthday Girls’ annual Christmas Party can testify to the group’s magnetism with their “special floor shows” that include “A Tribute to the King” This exciting, emotional, tasteful and very realistic production is patterned after Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas shows. It features VanAtta as the “King” dressed in the Las Vegas shows-type costume along with the trademark movements and mannerisms that will bring back memories of Elvis. The Chessmen’s back-up vocals are performed in the styles of the Jordanaires and the Stamps Quartet, and the musical score is exciting, making this show a must see as far as the audience is concerned.
If this is the set selected for that night, “Ladies and Gentlemen...Mr. James Brown,” features VanAtta as Mr. Dynamite performing the rhythm and blues hits that established James Brown as the “Godfather of Soul” in the ’60s. It is patterned after the “All Star Revue” and “Alive at the Apollo” shows that Brown took on tour and made famous.
The third “special floor show” they do is the “Magic Music of the Platters,” which was the result of The Chessmen’s role as backup band for the Platters. The very pleased Platters honored the Chessmen with a copy of the musical arrangements for their Las Vegas Show. The Chessmen’s “Magic Music other Platters” show is an authentic rendition of those moving and memorable tunes using the types of harmonies and phrasing that are the trademark of the Platters. This romantic trip down memory lane is also a proven audience pleaser.
Tommy and wife, Linda, have been married 16 years, but their coming together has been almost as amazing as VanAtta’s career with The Chessmen. They originally met in 1972 at a club The Chessmen were playing in Murfreesboro. They were both married to other people at that time.
“Fast forward 30 years from that point when The Chessmen were hired to play for my 30th Class Reunion in Shelbyville, TN,” explained Linda on interview day for this article. “We remembered meeting each other 30 years before. We went on a date a week later and were married one year after my reunion on July, 1998.”
Linda VanAtta was crowned as the 2010 Senior Mrs. Wilson County sponsored by the Lebanon-Wilson County Chamber of Commerce. She serves on the ambassador committee for “all the fun stuff” for the chamber, such as open houses, beauty contests and more.
“There’s lots of traveling involved for both Tommy and myself,” said Linda VanAtta. “Tommy comes with me on my stuff and I get to go with him on his stuff. It keeps life interesting and fun.”
They live in the same house on the same lake in Wilson County where Tommy VanAtta has lived for the last 35 years.
“We celebrate 50 years as a band on May 30,” said VanAtta. “We’ve probably had as many as 30 different members of the band in that time; several are deceased. We were popular in primarily the southeast, but we made waves with our records from Australia to Detroit and beyond. Up until two years ago, we were still playing or averaging 120-150 dates a year, but the economy has eliminated a lot of those dates, but we’re still doing 100 or more a year, and I have no plans to retire as long as the fans keep booking us. Three of the six guys still with us are ‘young guys in their 50s and 60s,’ so they are having to work regular jobs to make a living, which we in the ‘older days’ didn’t have to do because we were booked full time.”
VanAtta said there were plenty of interesting things to happen on the road that supplied heart-stopping moments.
“In Kentucky one time, the trailer we were pulling that held all our instruments and gear, started jackknifing and pulled loose from the car,” said VanAtta. “It was running along side of us down the road. Fortunately, it stopped before it caused too much damage to our belongings or to other cars on the road. We had a bus for a time, but that was too big to navigate in most of the parking lots and cost too much to keep on the road with gas, insurance, etc.
“Then, we were playing at a club where a guy just came in and started shooting a gun,” he said. “We all dove under tables and never did find out who he was or who he was mad at or trying to shoot. We had a time or two that we double booked where we had to run back and forth between dates.
“Of course, there were thrilling times, too. Like we had four albums and one CD through the years. One was fresh off the press when The Chessmen played for a big corporation party. The lady in charge bought 150 copies of the CD to pass out to all their guests. That was a big thrill to sell that many at once.”
VanAtta said the band consists of five guys now.
“For years, we carried as many as nine in the group, including two girl backup singers and horn players. Today’s Chessmen include Jerry Garrett who’s played lead guitar with us for the past two years, Wayne Marsh on keyboard, Jimmy Lowe on drums and Dennis Steen, of Mt. Juliet, on bass. They all sing backup, and I’m still the front man after all these years.”
“You have to remember the group is a visual, as well as, an audio act,” said Linda VanAtta. “You don’t just listen to them; you have to watch them.”
VanAtta said all their fans are invited to attend their 50th celebration, which will take place May 31 from 7:30-11 pm at the American Legion Post 82 in Inglewood on Gallatin Road. It will be first come, first serve with a $5 charge at the door. Sweet Things Bakery in Lebanon will bring the cake.
“We are rounding up as many of the ‘old’ Chessmen who are still alive these 50 years and are still rockin’ and rollin’.”
They are also booked again for The Birthday Girls’ invitation-only Christmas Party.