NEW YORK: Les Paul Remembered - by J. Blake

Posted on 8/15/2009 by J. Blake

On Thursday August 13, 2009, the music world lost a musician, a composer, an innovator, an inventor, an engineer and a legend. Less then an hour from Manhattan, in a hospital in White Plains, New York, Les Paul died of complications from pneumonia. He was 94 years-old and remarkably played almost every Monday night at the Iridium Club in New York City, since 1996 (and before that at a club called Fat Tuesday in NYC, since 1984)!

He was born Lester William Polfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha Wisconsin. He began playing harmonica at age 8, then moved to the banjo and even tried his hand at the piano before settling on the instrument that he would become known for, the guitar. By age 13 he was playing country music professionally and by 19 was living in Chicago playing both “hillbilly” music (under the name “Rhubarb Red”, an alter-ego that he also used on his first record in 1936) and jazz (as Les Paul) live on the radio. In addition to his own debut record, 1936 also found Paul backing legendary blues vocalist, Georgia White, on a record for the Decca label.

Les Paul is often credited with inventing the “solid-body” electric guitar in the late-1930s, most notably a 4”x4” piece of lumber, fitted with a guitar neck, bridge and pickups that he affectionately referred to as “The Log”. Though Paul’s contributions to the design and evolution of the solid-body guitar are significant and should not go overlooked, it is important to note that in actuality Leo Fender and Adolph Rickenbacher were also, independently developing and marketing their own versions of the instrument roughly around the same time. What is certain is that the nature of the solid-body minimized feedback through the amplifier and maximized sustain, allowing the sound generated from the vibrating guitar-strings to resonate longer before becoming inaudible; two elements that eventually made ”the sound” of rock ‘n’ roll and electrified blues possible.

Musically, the remainder of the 1930s and the majority of the 1940s found Les Paul leading his own trio (first in New York and then with a different line-up in California), backing the likes of Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters, as well as recoding several of his own albums for Decca Records. In 1947 he built his own acetate disk multi-track recording system in his garage and recorded a version of the song Lover (When You’re Near Me) which featured Paul playing 8 different electric guitar parts, some of which at varied speeds. The following year Capitol Records released the recording as a single, with a similarly recorded version of Brazil as the B-side. Despite the record’s bizarre sound (one that even today sounds oddly futuristic, with a flair of kitsch), it became a hit.

In 1949, following a horrible automobile accident that almost cost him his right arm, Les Paul married singer/guitarist Mary Ford (whom he originally teamed up with in 1946). Using the very first magnetic audiotape multi-track recording machine, (which Paul built by modifying a reel-to-reel tape recorder given to him by Bing Crosby as a gift) the couple created a string of multi-layered pop hits for Capital Records, including versions of How High the Moon and Tiger Rag (among others). In addition to Les Paul’s multiple guitar parts, the recordings featured several layers of Ford vocally harmonizing with herself. Their chart-topping success in the early 1950s made them household names, with their own NBC radio program and a television series titled The Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home Show.

In 1951 Les Paul was offered a business proposition that would further immortalize him and his name for generations, long after his music would go out of fashion. Due to the success of the Fender Telecaster in 1950 and in an attempt to boost their own sales, Gibson Guitar Corporation approached Les Paul asking him to provide his input and endorsement for a new Gibson guitar. Though the extent of his actual contributions to the instrument remain controversial (most sources attributing all significant design aspects to Gibson president Ted McCarty), it is for certain that it was Paul’s endorsement that made the high-priced guitar a success. The original Gibson Les Paul guitar was released in 1952 with a gold finish, to emphasize the fact that it was an instrument of high quality. Though throughout the years the popularity of the model has gone up and down, it has remained a staple of rock, blues and popular music since its inception. Everyone from Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page to Freddie King, Hubert Sumlin, Michael Bloomfield, Peter Green and even Slash have all used a Gibson Les Paul at some point during their prolific musical careers.

Unfortunately by 1955 Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “luck” and success ran out and despite several attempts at reviving their careers, they could not get the streak going again and eventually parted ways in a bitter divorce in 1964. Besides an LP consisting of mostly remakes in 1967 and two collaborative albums with Chet Atkins in 1976 and 1978, Paul spent the majority of late-60s and 1970s in retirement. The 1980s found him playing live once again, with a weekly residency at two different jazz clubs (Fat Tuesday and The Iridium Club, as mentioned above) in New York City from 1984 until his death in 2009.

During his 81 year career, Les Paul was undoubtedly one of most influential figures in music of the last 100 years. He was not only a gifted and versatile guitarist, he was an inventor and an innovator that pushed the art of playing guitar and the medium of recording music to its limits, forcing it to make leaps and bounds forward in their evolutions. His significant technological contributions to the industry are too numerous to list in such a short article and he has been bestowed just about every honor and award that several different industries have to offer. He has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and even the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He is truly a music legend and without the fruits of his labor, the arts of making and recording music would not be where they are today.

I am happy to say that I did have a chance to see him perform live a couple of years ago and I am sad that I did not take the initiative to see him play more often. For a man in his 90s he was full of life, fire and energy. He was a consummate showman and that is exactly what you got when you went to see him…"a show", not just a concert. By the time I saw him his, hands were riddled with arthritis and he was half a century past his prime. So his guitar playing was certainly not what it used to be, but he was very funny, telling jokes and delightful anecdotes from the stage. One thing that you probably wouldn’t imagine about the music icon is that his sense of humor was a little risqué. He wasn’t quite “dirty”, but his jokes and stories were often laced with sexual innuendos and he was quite flirty with the ladies. His playing may not have been “amazing” by that time, but he was quick-witted and very entertaining. Toward the end of his performances he would ask if anyone played guitar and he would pick people out of the audience to come up on stage and sit in on a song or two. He was incredibly generous in that way and being able to play with him was something that I always wanted to do. Unfortunately when I attended his show, I was seated toward the back of the club, missing my opportunity to share the stage with the legend, but I am blessed to just be able to say that I saw him…and for that I’m grateful.

He will be missed......


The year was 1944 and Les Paul was living in California playing with his jazz trio. On July 2nd he was asked to be a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore at the inaugural "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concert in Los Angeles. Les Paul took the stage that night with the likes of Nat ‘King’ Cole (on piano), Johnny Miller, Red Callender, Lee Young and a booming horn section that consisted of Shorty Sherock, J.J. Johnson, Illinois Jackson and Jack McVea.

Forget the multi-tracking, the inventions and the “futuristic” sound of the Paul/Ford records. If you want to hear Les Paul play…and I mean really play! You need to check out this CD. The recording quality holds up surprisingly well considering its age and the technology used at the time. The entire band is amazing throughout the entire album and Paul and Cole’s give-and-take during the two parted “Blues jam” (split in two because the recording tape ran out during the lengthy instrumental) is really about as good as music gets. It is a must for all music lovers.

Copyright © 2009 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved.

Here is a memorial that Nelson caught at a local venue. He is sadly missed.

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