Les Paul's fifteen-year residency at NYC's Iridium Jazz Club has become the stuff of legend. In the latter part of his career, hundreds of music's finest from all genres came to pay tribute — and occasionally share the stage — with the music icon, from Paul McCartney to Zakk Wylde to Olivia Newton-John.
At a show in 2000, it was Keith Richards' turn, who stepped on stage for a memorable improvised blues number with Les. For most people, when you think of Richards, it's hard not to picture him with a cigarette in one hand and a Fender Telecaster in the other, and clearly, Les Paul is no exception, asking Richards as the band sets up, "You son of a bitch, you're playing a Fender?" Quickly opting for the Gibson — and not short of a witty retort — Richards quips, "Who the hell are you? Oh, you're the guy that made this!"
Things start off a little shaky as the impromptu performance kicks off. However, considering Les and Keith's (over a century of) combined live experience and a classy backing band behind them, the ensemble pulls it together for some notable musical exchanges. Particularly from Les, armed with his beautiful smokeburst example of the famous "Recording Model."
Richards is also on vocal duties as the 12-bar progresses, and you have to assume he's coming up with the lyrics on the spot, singing, "Oh, baby, I've got a cold pork chop. Does anybody wanna pick on it?" With Richards being somewhat of a connoisseur of early recorded blues, his lyrics are a potentially tenuous nod towards Lousiana-born blues man Crying Sam Collins, whose song about the hardships of life in the 1920s bore the same name.
Les Paul did two packed-out shows just about every Monday night at the Iridium, and of course, even with a Rolling Stone in the house, Les was always the main draw. Richards lovingly states as their performance came to an end, "Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, but I came here to listen to this sucker."
Recent six-string (or even five) associations aside, Richards is no stranger to a Les Paul or two in his career. In fact, his connections to the Gibson model date back to before The Rolling Stone's debut studio release — ironically, a period when the American guitar maker had stopped building them. One of the first major names to be seen performing with a "Burst," Richards would use the guitar extensively during live shows and TV performances during the mid-1960s and played a big part in its popularity with his musical peers and subsequent revival.
Of course, Les Paul's contributions to music stretch way beyond the notes he played. His experiments paved the way for multitrack recording as we know it today, revolutionizing effects such as phase and delay. The majority of his accomplishments are unfamiliar to many.
Even Richards himself, at one point, was unaware of Paul's impact on the technology that The Rolling Stones utilized to its full potential. During an "Ask Keith" interview in 2020, Richards was asked whether Les was known more for his music than his inventions. "I would say, generally speaking, in England, he was known more for his music," says Richards, who always considered Paul a guitar wizard. He added, "He was known for a few hit songs, but nobody really knew that Les Paul basically invented the rooms we're in now. Recording studios."
Keith Richards and the rest of The Rolling Stones are gearing up for a multi-date US tour in 2024 in support of the band's first new studio album in nearly two decades, Hackney Diamonds.
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The Editor in chief of Guitar Interactive since 2017, Jonathan has written online articles for Guitar World, Guitar Player and Guitar Aficionado over the last decade. He has interviewed hundreds of music's finest, including Slash, Joe Satriani, Kirk Hammett and Steve Vai, to name a few. Jonathan's not a bad player either, occasionally doing gear reviews, session work and online lessons for Lick Library.