Portrait of a Musical God: A Remembrance of Mr. Les Paul

August 13, 2009
aLes1Photo by Robert Brodie

I selfishly assumed that Les Paul would probably live forever. Even in his 90s, he seemed to have the energy to go the distance, and I couldn’t imagine a musical world without him. After all, when a musician passes, it’s always sad, but his or her impact on society is usually confined to a community of fans who love their music. With Les, it was much more than chart success, cultural fashion, or MTV/VH1 reverence. Even if we completely delete his tremendous musical works from consideration, his contributions to recording technology kicked off a journey that resulted in the digital-multitrack workstations used by virtually all producers of music. (And it’s quite a story that Les’ own experiments in multitrack recording were borne from messing with one of Bing Crosby’s stereo decks.) His creation and development of the solidbody electric guitar arguably helped manifest rock music, and the guitar that bears his name has powered scores of songs, from the epic and legendary to the quirky and maligned. He pretty much invented electronic echo, as well—which means The Edge would have sounded very un-Edge-like if Les Paul had never trod upon the planet.

Of course, this is all stuff that will grace history books until the end of recorded time. But what scholars in the future won’t get is experiencing the buoyant effect of Les’ laughter, his joy of music, his eternally inquisitive mind, and his complete love of everyone and anyone who expressed something musically deep and thrilling with a guitar in their hands. He didn’t care if the music was rock, jazz, rap, or Martian. He didn’t care if the perpetrator was young or old, rich or poor, educated or street smart, cool or klutzy. He didn’t even care if a great song was cut with a Les Paul, a Stratocaster, or a Travis Bean. Les would simply beam into the vibe and dig every twist and turn. And while, yeah, there might be a bit of a smug grin on his face as he mused that many examples of fabulous guitar work could, in some way, be traced back to him, Les was typically gracious and benevolent in his praise and enthusiasm for other music makers.

That evangelism wasn’t just for guitar music or the guitar, either. He was a one-man celebration of Peter Pan as a senior citizen—a fire-breathing sentinel against any perceptions that old age makes you worthless, cynical, unmotivated, bland, or significantly limited in any ways that might be truly important to one’s lust for life. And, believe me, Les could party.

aLes2 Photo by Robert Brodie

I first met Les around 1990, when I worked for the company that published Electronic Musician and Mix magazines. Mix had a charity event called the Tec Awards, and in those days before the dot-com crash and the world economy collapse, the affair was quite a soiree that ended with an after-party in the publisher’s mammoth suite at whatever posh New York hotel hosted the show. Les bounded in around 2:00 am with his son carrying his guitar case. I assumed he had just performed somewhere. He immediately lit up the suite, cracking jokes, slapping backs, shaking hands, telling stories—working the room like Sinatra on one of his “up” days. He didn’t miss anyone, and he made everyone feel as if he was glad to see them.

As the new kid on the mag payroll, I was hanging back near the wet bar, enthralled and somewhat intimidated that I was within a few yards of one of my heroes. When Les came my way—more than likely because I was standing next to a stunning woman, and Les was definitely a ladies’ man—I shook his hand and said what an honor it was to meet the man who had made the then burgeoning home-studio explosion possible. He stepped back, and with kind of a magical elfin twinkle, he asked, “So you’re one of these studio whizs, huh?” I said that I hoped to be, but that I was actually an editor at Electronic Musician. For some reason still unknown, he stopped casing the woman next to me, and preceded to barrage me with tales about making records with Mary Ford, how he recorded his guitar, the importance of pickup placement to guitar tone, and a few technical dissertations that I couldn’t really follow (but I smiled and nodded anyway). Finally, he asked, “Hey, got a piece of paper?” I ripped a page from my mini notebook, and he took it and wrote: “To Mike, Make a Hit. Les Paul. Inventor of Echo Echo Echo.” He also gave me his home number. I couldn’t believe it.

Although it was nearly 4:00 am, Les wasn’t done talking. He continued to move around the suite, and I could still hear his laughter as the morning light came peeking through the windows—about the time I spied his son sprawled out on one of the suite’s couches, dead asleep, mouth open, snoring rather politely. His dad had out-partied him and several other revelers who were decades younger.

As the years unfolded, Les made himself available for counsel, questions, and quotes when needed. When I moved to Guitar Player in 1998, he became even more helpful, as he had been a supporter of the magazine since its inception. (“You’re with the BIG one now,” he said. “I knew [GP founder] Bud Eastman. He wanted me to be a partner.”) It was during this period that Les proved his enthusiasm for all things guitar. Like Carlos Santana, he loved the fact that Guitar Player covered legends and tattooed youngsters on relatively even editorial ground. He’d often call and say something like, “I checked out those kids with the wild hair—you know, the ones on page 15. Hey, they got something. Nice sound.” Or after seeing an icon covered, he’d say, “Did I ever tell you my story about [insert legend here]?” And whether he was teasing me or not, he’d always admit that he read GP from cover to cover in the can.

As he seemed to cruise into his 90s, I still gasped at how vital a presence he was. Arthritis had slowed his fleet fingers to a crawl, but he could still manage a tender reading of “Over the Rainbow” that would choke you up if you were in the mood to be so moved. He tended to make his gigs more variety-show corny than outright guitar fests to somewhat disguise the reality of his diminished technique, and people didn’t mind at all. The fact that such a legend was still able to hold down a regular gig at the Iridium Jazz Club in NYC seemed to be enough for the folks who crammed the club every Monday night. He was a legend. He was there. His jokes didn’t stink (well, barely), and his Les Paul still sang.

A slight downside was Les’ bizarre penchant for “expanding” his accomplishments in later life. He took credit for a lot of stuff—so much so that the GP staff often joked that Les claimed he invented air. It was a weird quirk, because his place in history was already set in granite. Personally, I never challenged him on anything—even if I knew some of his stories flew a little too close to the airspace of inaccuracies. I knew what he did do, and that was so mammoth that a few instances of misplaced bravado or convenient forgetfulness were to be forgiven.

And, anyway, as with all true legends, the myths are sometimes as engaging as the facts. I heard that Les put microphones all over his home, so that if his then-wife and musical partner Mary Ford was washing the dishes or doing the vacuuming, he could still record her vocal tracks whenever he needed them. I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I don’t care. I choose to believe it. I also heard that Les was so into sonic isolation that his basement recording studio had no doors—just a small window on the outside of the house. If Les wanted to work, he had to trot out to the front lawn, bend down and open the basement window, shimmy through it, and then drop to the studio floor. Picturing a senior citizen scampering around like a teenage explorer is hilarious, and, yes, I believe that one as well. (There are tons of other such stories, and we’ll try to collect a few for Guitar Player’s upcoming tribute to Les Paul in the December 2009 issue.)

I have many fond memories of Les, but the predominant images revolve around his 90th birthday bash in New York City in 2005. It kicked off with a concert at Carnegie Hall that brought Steve Miller, Joe Satriani, Peter Frampton, Stanley Jordan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jose Feliciano, Edgar Winter, and others to the stage. Les held court, played a few tunes, and was practically glowing. It was one of those shows where your mouth is open from the first few notes to the final crescendo, but my favorite moments were when Les would fight his unresponsive fingers through a tune, stumble bravery to the finale, punch up the last note by smacking his whammy bar, and then smile and laugh like someone who had just bested tennis champ Roger Federer in straight sets. His enthusiasm—always infectious—was a formidable power surging through the adoring audience. You could almost see it.

The private after-party at Sony studios was crowded, loud, and raucous. As usual, the birthday boy was everywhere. In fact, he was enjoying himself so much that when it was time for him to blow out his candles someone had to go looking for him, and it took a while to find him. And as he stood in the basement studio, surrounded by stars, corporate bigwigs, media mavens, guitar-gear manufacturers, and everyday people—everyone singing “Happy Birthday” full voice—he seemed for just a moment like someone who didn’t deserve all of this. Like a guy who just wanted a better, fuller, and louder guitar tone. A tinkerer who somehow transcended the development of wacky and pointless gizmos to become the guitar’s Edison. One of the lucky few whose boundless imagination is manifest in reality. He seemed almost humble. But when the singing stopped, there was that trademark cackle, and The Legend was absorbing the adulation and loving every drop. It was as it should be. —Michael Molenda

aLes3 Photo by Robert Brodie

For more on Paul's unparalleled career and wide ranging influence, check out Jesse Gress' excellent "10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Les Paul" from the June 2009 issue of Guitar Player. The article can be found here.


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