Pat Bergeson, the Nashville guitarist and harmonica player, is a Batavia native. He is the second oldest child of Ted and Ellen Bergeson, who have lived in Batavia for over 60 years, where Ted had a long career as City Engineer.
The younger Bergeson started playing the drums in third grade and was sure that he had found his passion. He drummed in the orchestra and band, attended summer music camp, and studied an array of percussion instruments: chimes, bells, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba and snare. Percussion was his “main thing” until age 21.
He had “goofed around” with the harmonica in junior high school, learned some simple songs and could make a “decent sound.” He gave up the “harp” after his brother, Keith, got a 70s Stratocaster Sunburst for Christmas. Pat practiced on his brother’s guitar and learned some licks from Gary Marzuki at the Batavia News Agency (where he worked and played).
According to Mike Stiers, Pat’s junior high school band director, Pat’s success is no surprise. “He took his music very seriously.” Pat credits Stiers, who was the junior high and middle school band director for 32 years, as a major influence.
In high school, Pat was noticed by Bruce Patzer, leader of a Fox Valley-based pop/rock band called Foxfire. Patzer heard Pat when Bruce was next door at his girlfriend’s house, and invited Pat to play with the band. Patzer said, “We all had ten years on him, so I like to think we passed along some of our experience… [b]ut he had more raw talent and discipline than any of us could hope for.”
Pat was a guitarist in his own band, too, doing J. Geils, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Roy Buchanan music. He performed other gigs, including duets of snare drum and tuba with his childhood friend, Dan Anderson, who is now a professional musician in his own right, playing both orchestral and various types of jazz music with his tuba and bass around the Chicago area.
Pat switched from drums to guitar in high school, with some overlap, until he went to college. He started at the University of Illinois, but transferred to William Patterson in New Jersey in 1979 where he ended up majoring in Jazz Studies. When graduated, he began teaching at the National Guitar Summer Workshop in Connecticut, where he worked for eight or nine years.
The inspiration for honing his harmonica skills came after a gig in Kalamazoo, Michigan in which “a great drummer” (Randy Marsh) also played some “incredible jazz” on a diatonic harmonica. Pat endeavored to learn his technique with “one of his harps” while driving in traffic in New York City. Pat began to think he was pretty good until he heard Howard Levy of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones fame, which inspired him to work harder on his technique. A friend, Rob Paparozzi, introduced him to playing chromatically, and Pat mastered in a day and has been playing ever since (quite often while driving).
As Fate would have it, Pat was out of town one day in 1992 when Chet Atkins came to Connecticut. A friend, Robert Lee Castleman (a/k/a RL Kass), gave Atkins a 1990 or 1991 demo tape of Pat and himself playing “Sneakin’ Around.” Shortly after that, Castleman invited Pat to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to do some recording with Chet Atkins’s manager. Pat stopped off at Nashville with Castleman after the sessions. When Atkins heard that Pat was in town, he asked his manager and Castleman to bring Pat by. They talked and played guitar for six hours.
The two hit it off. Pat played a demo tape for Chet of a song he had written: “Mountains of Illinois.” Once Pat returned to Brooklyn, he and Chet spoke by phone several times each month. One day, Pat came home to find this message on his answering machine: “Hey Pat, you want to come down here and play on this record with me and Jerry Reed? Give me a call back.” When Pat called Chet back, Pat joked that he had a bar mitzvah and could not come.
A few days later, Chet flew Pat to Nashville. Along for the ride was Pat’s guitar repair guy. Pat only had one guitar, and it was in bad shape. Pat, Jerry Reed and Chet prepared to record in Atkins’s basement studio. Chet stood behind the glass and signaled Pat when to start playing and when to stop. That was it: no further instructions. Chet was pleased.
After the Nashville session, Pat went home to New York. He recalls that it was painful to go from recording with Chet Atkins to “playing terrible things” like “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and the theme from “Ice Castles.”
Next, Chet phoned Pat to let him know that he was scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops and would love to have Pat join him. On the night before the performance, Chet called Pat to ask, “Oh, by the way – I you need to learn to ‘The Claw’ – and I want you to learn to Jerry’s [stuff] too.” So, Pat had one night (that one) to learn Jerry Reed’s part in “Sneakin’ Around.” He did it – and Atkins thought it was great.
Chet flew Pat down to Nashville again to perform on the program “American Music Shop” on TNN. They rehearsed and recorded the show the same day. (Summertime).
Even as he continued to play with Atkins, Reed, and others, Pat resided in New York. Chet suggested that Pat move to Nashville, which he did in 1993 when his Brooklyn lease expired. According to Pat, Chet “paid my way into the Union,” insisting that if Pat was going to play with him, he needed to be a member of the musicians’ union.
Shortly after Pat relocated to Tennessee, he and Atkins recorded “Read My Licks” and did the “Read My Licks” TV special with Eric Johnson, Earl Klugh, and others.
Pat played all of Chet Atkins’s concerts. During down-times, Atkins would find other work to keep Pat busy. On one memorable occasion, he invited Pat over to do some recording “in the basement” with Waylon Jennings. He introduced Pat to Suzy Bogguss, Shelby Lynne and Wynona Judd.
Chet never told Pat what to do when they played together. “He rather let me do what I wanted to do.” Atkins admired Pat’s stylistic combination of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz – and his harmonica skills. When Pat asked for advice, Chet Atkins replied, “Play something that someone else can whistle.”
Topic: Pat Bergeson
Researcher: Kevin Drendel
- Chicago Tribune, 12/29/93, “Guitar Skills Lead Batavian to New York, Then to Side of Chet Atkins in Nashville”
- Shelby Lynn Music blog, “Working with Chet Atkins, an Interview” Part 1 and Part 2
- YouTube “Summertime”
- YouTube “Read My Licks”