Today is Les Paul’s birthday, and he would be 100 today, were he still alive. A tireless innovator and performer, Les kept up a busy schedule right until his death on August 12, 2009, at age 94.
His long and remarkable life had a profound impact on the guitar as well as on music. Les pioneered multitrack recording using a disc-cutting lathe and discovered how to manipulate recorded sounds by changing speeds to create sped-up guitar runs and sweetly tinkling tones as heard on his hit 1948 instrumental, “Lover.” He also found he could create slap echo, another effect he put to great use, particularly on “How High the Moon,” his and Mary Ford’s hit 1951 single.
And, of course, he was a pioneer of the electric guitar. In the Twenties, Les was one of many players who experimented with amplifying the instrument, using the pickup from a phonograph and parts from his family’s radio. Later, he became obsessed with building a solidbody guitar, leading to the creation of his experimental Log guitar built around a solid four-by-four pine block, to which he affixed two pickups that he designed, a vibrato tailpiece and a bridge.
Just as important, though, Les was a performer, and by the start of the Fifties he was famous for his radio work and records, many of which he made with Ford, his wife from 1949 to 1964. It was his fame that drew Gibson Guitars to him. The company hoped Les would lend his name to their new solidbody electric model. Gibson had dismissed him in 1941 when he tried to put together an endorsement deal on a solidbody electric, but by 1950, they were courting him. The result of their union, the Gibson Les Paul, is one of the most famous and celebrated guitars of all time.
Les continued tinkering with guitars and performing in the decades that followed, and in 1984 he began a Monday night residency at Fat Tuesday’s jazz club in New York City, a gig that later relocated to the Iridium. Those shows not only gave Les a chance to continue entertaining, which he loved; they also helped him keep up his chops and perform with other celebrated guitarists, who were eager for a chance to sit in with the living legend.
To celebrate his life, we pulled together videos featuring some of Les’s greatest performances, including “Lover,” “How High the Moon,” and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” from Chester & Lester, his 1976 collaboration with Chet Atkins.
Among the best is the fourth selection here, a commemorative gala held for Les at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York on August 18, 1988. The show was a who’s who of guitar greats, including B.B. King, Eddie Van Halen, David Gilmour and Brian Setzer, among others, all of whom jam together on “Blue Suede Shoes.” This is followed by Les and Jeff Beck performing an extended jam that is both fun and full of incendiary guitar work. We conclude with Les and the Les Paul Trio performing a gorgeous version of the instrumental “Sleepwalk” at the Iridium on his 90th birthday. When you’re done watching, feel free to visit our Facebook page and leave a thought for Les.
To Les, we say thank you for everything you gave us—from the music to the recording innovations to the guitar that bears your name.