“HOW HIGH THE MOON”
Les Paul & Mary Ford, 1951
Although Les Paul wrote songs of his own, nearly all of his hits were covers of popular songs written by others. The music for “How High the Moon” was composed by Morgan Lewis, with lyrics by Nancy Hamilton. Long considered a jazz standard, the song was featured in the 1940 Broadway revue Two for the Show, and hit versions were released by Benny Goodman & His Orchestra and Stan Kenton in 1948. Ella Fitzgerald also recorded versions of the song, which many consider her signature tune. Les Paul and Mary Ford’s version, however, recorded at their basement apartment in Jackson Heights, New York, and released on Capitol Records on March 26, 1951, is easily the most widely recognized—and it was the duo’s first #1 hit.
“How High the Moon” was recorded on an Ampex Model 300 reel-to-reel tape machine modified with a fourth head to enable sound-on-sound recording. Paul tracked the guitar parts with one or more of his heavily modified Epiphone “clunkers,” playing through a small Gibson combo amp. The slapback echo was produced on the Ampex 300 (or possibly a second tape recorder with at least three heads) by folding the recorded sound back from the playback head to the record head. There are no drums, and all of the instrumental parts are played on guitar, including the “bass” part. You don’t miss the other instruments, though, because the chugging Le Pompe-style rhythm guitar parts—a style originally championed by Paul’s hero Django Reinhardt—propel the song forward irresistibly.
Compared with Paul’s earlier “multiple” recordings, “How High the Moon” is relatively straightforward. There are no sped-up “chipmunk” guitars flying around, or dramatic shifts in key or tempo, and guitar overdubs are comparatively few (12 tracks according to most versions of the story). But a huge difference is the way in which Mary Ford’s voice is layered. Patti Page’s voice had been doubled on her mega-hit version of “Tennessee Waltz” in 1950, and Paul decided to go one—actually, many—better on his good friend. Although there are only what sound like four or five layers on the lyric parts, exiting the guitar solo there’s a stunning wordless vocal section that sounds like an entire roomful of Mary Fords.
Another interesting point is that Paul refrains from playing the melody, instead concentrating on supporting the vocal with strategically placed chord bursts, dizzying double stops, cool country-flavored bends, rippling runs, and other flashy bits. It is also worth noting that Paul tuned his guitar up one whole step when recording the song, so that although he was playing in the key of G, it sounded in A.
“How High the Moon” wasn’t Les Paul and Mary Ford’s most challenging or elaborate recording, but along with “Vaya Con Dios (May God Be With You),” it was one of their two most popular, and it went a long way toward establishing Les Paul—and the guitar—as vital forces in the latter half of the 20th Century.