(Originally published, Organica Quarterly, Summer 1991)
Back story: Within a couple of weeks of this feature’s appearance in Organica Quarterly, the receptionist at the magazine called me and said, “You have a call from some guy named Les Paul.” Les called me from his New Jersey home (I was living in Florida then.) When I got on the phone, Les said, “I just want to thank you for everything you did for me … for putting me in that magazine and all the great things you said about me.” Can you image? You spend your youth listening to the guy’s records and trying to emulate them on your guitar. He agrees to let you visit him and do interviews for a story — though thousands of stories had already been written about him over more than half a century — then he finds you and sincerely thanks you. After his weekly appearances at Fat Tuesdays ended, Les moved his trio shows uptown in the larger, more formal Iridium Room (jazz venue). I went back and saw him there a couple of times. One night, while I was sitting in the audience, using an admittedly noisy, motor-driven Nikon to shoot pictures of him on stage, he stopped playing, leaned forward with the boys in the band and let me take a portrait. Then he shot me one of those “O.K., you got your shot, shut up and let me play,” looks. The audience laughed, and I put my camera away. Les lived another 18 years after this story ran, and continued to play weekly gigs in New York until the end. He died on August 12, 2009, at the age of 94.
Stringside With the Godfather of Guitar & Merlin of Multi-Track Recording
By Gregory Tozian
New York — There is no sign reading, “Abandon All Woe, Ye Who Enter Here” on the stairs leading down to the narrow basement nightclub. But if there were, it would be fair enough warning. For what the Master of Ceremonies is selling this evening from the stage just beyond the tiny bar and table-packed dogleg to the right is what the French call joie de vivre.
The melodies rolling steadily through the club are as comforting as a neat bourbon to anyone with a humming knowledge of mid 20th century pop music: “The Tennessee Waltz,” “St. Louis Blues,” “How High the Moon.”
But it’s the sound that sends an electric shock of recognition through many in the crowd. It’s unmistakable. Glistening audio perfection, a vanilla-chocolate-and-strawberry hot fudge sundae for the ears, topped with walnuts, parti-colored candy sprinkles and a fat red cherry.
Les Paul, dressed in Kelly green turtleneck, black slacks and a whimsical grin, has 100 paying customers eating out of his hand. The way he works them, you’d think he’d been wowing crowds like this for more than 60 years. Well, he has.
When he’s not cracking corny but sincere jokes during musical breathers, the guitar he designed and which has borne his name for 40 years does Les Paul’s talking. He plucks more musical joy per square inch from the instrument than anyone else in the business.
But before the first two shows on this Monday night in the basement of Fat Tuesday’s, Paul reveals that making it look easy is simply one more of his talents.
“One of the nice things about playing this nightclub,” Paul says, sitting in a darkened far corner, “is that I play for the public. I feel them out every night. When I get up to play that guitar, if it’s likable, if it’s hockable, I’m in. If it’s not hockable, I better roll up my sleeves and sell ‘em.”
This, then, is one legend not content to lounge on his laurels — which are plentiful.
“Not every crowd is all Les Paul-avid fans,” he observes, from half-a-century of experience. “Some might want pretty, non-technical stuff. But then another wants to know, ‘How fast can you play? How clean can you play? And how far out can you go, fella?’ And while I’m pleasing him I’m losing the other person. So, I have to stay in the middle of the road. Too many land mines.”
If Paul is hugging the centerline this evening, it’s only as a night-long average. For between the melodic opener (“You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”) to the fiery encore (“Avalon”), he fills the club with lyrical melodies and outer-limits techno jazz. One minute, Paul’s walking a raunchy bass riff on his bottom strings and comping killer chords — setting a perfect pace for rhythm guitarist-singer Lou Pallo and bassist Gary Mazzaroppi. In a wink, Paul squeezes into a heartbeat’s space a high-octane run covering the guitar neck from top to bottom — the notes cascading like a jarful of glass beads dropped down a stone stairway. The tone, color and depth of sound he coaxes from a no-frills Fender Twin Reverb amp and his brown, tiger-striped, 1980 Les Paul Heritage (with low-impedance, “recording” pick-ups) is startling. Anybody else would have to have a boxful of high-tech noisemakers to even approach the variety of effects that Paul gets, literally, with a wave of his hands.
The Monday-nights-only concerts at Fat Tuesday’s began in 1984 and have consistently seen big names in the music scene dropping in to study at the feet of the Master. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen) and Mark Knopfler (Dire Straights) have all listened in awe stringside. And such great players as George Benson, Al DiMeola and Larry Coryell have sat in on guitar, trading licks with the guy who created the market for the electric guitar.
On this evening, Paul also frequently treats the crowd to his trademark musical humor. On “Over the Rainbow” some fancy fingering at the deepest fret-depths conjures visions of a helium-high Munchkin out-crooning Judy Garland at 78rpms.
On the next break, somebody yells out, “How High the Moon,” the tune that sold 1.5 million singles for Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1951; it remains their signature song.
“I don’t have Mary now,” Paul explains (she died of cancer almost 15 years ago). He shoots a glance at his current vocalist, “Now, I’ve got Lou.” When the giggles subside, Pallo and Mazzaroppi take Paul’s lead into a lazy river version of the classic, changing horses midstream, and wrapping with a warp-drive “How High the Moon” that seems — impossibly — to move at double the speed of that jumping record.
Throughout the set, an irony that escapes much of the audience is the physical handicap with which Paul plays these days, reduced by arthritis to left hand movement only in his thumb and first two fingers. It’s exactly the physical options left to guitar guru Django Reinhardt. Losing the use of his ring and little fingers on his left hand in 1928 (at 18), in a gypsy caravan fire, did not prevent Reinhardt from becoming one of the most influential jazz guitarists of all time.
Paul knew Reinhardt in the ‘50s and emulated his playing decades before that. On the evening the two met, Reinhardt jammed on Paul’s electric guitar while Paul shaved for a performance at the Paramount Theater. “I never came so close to cutting my throat. I’ve never heard so much guitar,” Paul says during his Fat Tuesday’s break. “The tone was so great my guitar made a different sound — and the ideas!”
The grace under pressure that allowed Reinhardt to triumph has also served Les Paul well. Just counting the physical obstacles he’s overcome in the past five decades to any guitarist’s most vital assets — the hands and ears — would have stopped many other musicians. There was a terrible car wreck, in 1948, after which Paul’s right arm was almost amputated (except for the insistence of a guitar-loving doctor). It necessitated setting the musician’s shattered appendage permanently in the angled, guitar-strumming position it still assumes. He has also had bone graft surgery on the left hand.
And since the ‘70s, Paul has had repeated operations for Meniere’s Syndrome (inner ear trouble). Add to this bypass heart surgery in the early ‘80s, and you get some idea of the man’s survival instincts. But a deeper knowledge of his career gives a clue to the guitarist’s ongoing tenacity. Since childhood, Paul has displayed what amounts to an almost superhuman obsession to please himself and other people through creating new sounds.
Waking Up Waukeshans
Born June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, as Lester William Polfuss, Paul, for his first decade as a performer, took stage names from his hair color. In he late ‘20s and early ‘30s, as a teen, he was Red Hot Red, playing guitar and harmonica (designing and early version of the harp rack, popularized 50 years later by Bob Dylan) at Legion halls, nightclubs and speakeasies. To the chagrin of his parents, the young sound-lover created his first “overdubs” by punching extra holes in the household player piano rolls, adding hundreds of new notes to the machine’s repertoire.
From 1933 to 1936, Paul used the name of Rhubarb Red. Clad in straw hat, overalls and a blue chambray shirt, he sang and played, hillbilly style, mornings on Chicago’s WJJD Radio. At night he jammed under his new name, “Les Paul,” with such legends as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Art Tatum. Sharing the stage in 1938 with fellow jazz nut, rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins (Chet’s older, half-brother), on the National Barn Dance, led to the formation of the great Les Paul Trio — one of the first popular jazz trios. With bass player Ernie Newton, the trio landed an ace job with bandleader Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians in New York.
Playing with Waring on such popular shows as “The Ford Motor Program” and NBC’s early, nationally televised “Chesterfield (cigarettes) Show,” Paul more than anybody else, introduced the average American to the electric guitar.
“We took a vote among Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians while we were doing the NBC shows,” he remembers, “Fred came up to me and said, ‘I don’t understand it, Les. How come you draw more mail than I do?’ And I said, ‘It’s because they’re telling me to quit playing the electric.’ A lot of violin players and musicians who liked the acoustic sound were purists — whatever — and they hated the electric guitar. And so I took a vote among my trio and Fred — it was the four of us — and we all voted, unanimously, ‘Stick to the electric.’ And I asked Fred, ‘Why did you choose the electric?’ And he said, ‘Simple: you can hear it.’ And, as far as I’m concerned, you can do so many things with the electric that you can’t do with the acoustic. Paul adds, “The acoustic and the electric guitar are two different instruments. It’s that simple. I decided, hands down: ‘I play electric; it’s that.’ And I never looked back since.”
Les Paul: The Inventor & The Guitar
In the 1930s, there were many people working on the concept of an electrified Spanish guitar. The innovators included Adolph Rickenbacker and Leo Fender (names still on famous instrument brands), and Les Paul.
Although he made his first electric in his teens by jamming the phonograph needle of his parents’ Victrola into his acoustic guitar and amplifying it through the phonograph speaker, it was in 1941 that Paul is largely credited with having invented one of the first known solid-bodied electric guitars (there had been hollow-bodied electrics available since the mid-‘30s).
Paul created his marvel by cutting a standard Epiphone acoustic guitar body down the middle, filling the center strip with a 4-by-4 “railroad tie” and fixing it up with a guitar neck and two magnetic sound pickups. Today, that prototype, dubbed, “The Log,” is the Holy Grail of guitardom, having been donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.
The eventual Les Paul model guitar, which made its debut in 1952, was the product of 20 years of Les’ six-string hot-wiring experiments. But it took the inventor a good 10 years to convince the Gibson company to mass product it. Company reps originally berated his instrument as “the broomstick with pickups.”
Forty years later, there have been countless numbers of the guitars made in many styles, including the Les Paul Standard, Custom, Gold Top, Silverburst and Junior models (the latter popularized by mountainous Leslie West, of the hard-rock cult band, Mountain). Because of its natural “sustain” (the length of time a single-stuck note will continue to sound), its power and its identifiable “fat” and “raw” sounds, the Les Paul guitars have enjoyed exceptional popularity with blues-influenced rock musicians — Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Paige being front-runners among many famous satisfied customers. But the guitar has also influenced Southern Rock (Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers, and John Fogarty of Creedence Clearwater), Rock (Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Mick Taylor of the Stones, Neil Young, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, volume freak Ted Nugent, and Slash of Guns & Roses), Glam Rock (Mick Ronson of David Bowie’s band), Heavy Metal (Randy Rhodes of Ozzy Osbourne and Quiet Riot), Punk (Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols), and even Reggae (Bob Marley was buried with his Les Paul Special).
Sound-On-Sound: The Years with Mary Ford
The post “Log” 1940s were a busy time for Paul. He got drafted during World War II, straight into strumming for Special Services. He recorded a killer, live jazz “chase” sequence with the incredible pianist Nat “King” Cole (who used the pseudonym Shorty Nadine), for Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series. And, with his new, West Coast trio, Paul played brilliant backup guitar for Bing Crosby’s 1946 hit, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”
It was the million-selling crooner who encouraged the now-famous inventor to build his first home recording studio. Paul constructed this miraculous sound space for a paltry $175, in his garage. He made his own recording lathe (since tape wasn’t available yet) using an odd assortment of aircraft, plumbing and automotive parts. The turntable platter was fashioned from a Cadillac flywheel hooked to a motor by a cable taken from a dentist’s drill. Echo, or “delay,” sounds were achieved by putting a playback head behind the recording head and feeding the signal back to the recording head while recording.
It was out of this oddly-rigged, clever assemblage of electro-widgets that Paul recorded his early multi-guitar hits, “Lover” and “Brazil,” which Capitol Records later wisely boxed and christened “The New Sound!” His one-of-a-kind recording set-up allowed him to play rhythm, melody, harmony and backgrounds all by himself — establishing Paul as a talented guitarist/recording genius simultaneously. The “new sounds” put him firmly on the musical map.
Paul’s homegrown technique was so crisp, Consumers Research in the late ‘40s recommended people check the quality of their phonographs by playing Les Paul records.
Famous singers such as the Andrews Sisters, Kay Starr and Jo Stafford beat a path to Paul’s garage door to lay their voices on wax. Even the acerbic comic genius W.C. Fields recorded his only record in that storied studio.
Many years later, after the introduction of tape recording, Paul would design the world’s first 8-track recorder — which the Ampex company built. It is standard folklore in the music world today that Les Paul invented every crucial element of guitar and recording technology — from the plastic plectrum to black box computer gadgetry. This, of course, is not true (most of his inventions pre-dated transistors, much less microchips). However he innovated much equipment and many sounds still used, in essence, in studios worldwide.
This truism even applies to guitar hero Jimi Hendrix and his Electric Ladyland Studios in New York in the early 1970s.
“I first saw Hendrix one night when I was driving from New Jersey to New York,” Paul remembers. “The friend I was with said, ‘I think you should hear this guy.’ We stopped into this roadhouse where he was playing, in the early to mid-‘60s, when his name was still Jimi James. He was amazing, and on the way out I told my friend, ‘That guy can really play.’ Years later, after he was famous, and had Electric Ladyland, Jimi called me at home in New Jersey. He wanted to get a certain kind of sound and described it to me. I told him, ‘Turn your amp speakers against the wall and put your mic toward the back of the amp.’ He did it and called me back and said, ‘Thanks, Les, it worked.’
“I have no favorite song, or sound,” Paul says, looking back. “You can get great sound out of anything: a harmonica, a violin, a clarinet. Great sound out of Ella Fitzgerald. Great sound out of everything. I’m sure on the desert, the dripping of water is a great sound. It just depends on where your head’s at.”
It was while Paul was recuperating from his near fatal car wreck that he met cowboy singing star Gene Autry’s female vocalist, Colleen Summers, whom he later married. However, it was five years before Paul would see the viability of recording with his wife.
After she changed her name to Mary Ford, the Pauls became a couple professionally as well. It was the wisest career move the guitarist ever made. Their layer cake approach to sound-on-sound recording took producers, critics, record-buyers and the cash register by storm. In 1951 alone, the year that Les and Mary breathed new life into the hoary old jazz standard “How High the Moon,” the duo sold six million records.
“How High the Moon,” one of their most memorable records, was also one of the most technically complex — and still sounds modern today. Paul played the bas line on his six-string guitar, overlaying his rhythm chord changes and sparkling lead work. He overlapped Mary’s voice 12 times, giving her the punch of a full chorus. The recording used an unheard-of (until then) 24 separate pieces of sound.
On other tunes, such as “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” Paul took a cue from Grimm’s fairy tales and spun the “hay” of his early country-style picking into gold — records. With that song and “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” being played constantly on jukeboxes, radios and phonographs, Paul told Time magazine, “We grind ‘em out like hamburger.” If that was true, the grinding equipment was pretty complicated—and expensive.
Paul was fond of carrying his homemade recording gear with him on the road, capturing his guitar playing and Mary’s voice in echo-producing hotel bathrooms and under stadium grandstands and mailing the discs to astonished Capitol Records producers. However, the new hearth-side recording studio Paul put in their New Jersey home in the ‘50s cost more than $60,000.
It’s the same house in which the couple’s popular syndicated TV show, “The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show,” sponsored by Listerine, was shot for seven years.
By 1953, the year “Bye Bye Blues,” “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” and “Vaya Con Dios” entered Top 10 territory, the Pauls had sold some 11 million records.
In the days when radio was to the music industry what MTV is today, “concerts” were called “personal appearance tours” and Paul and Ford made them seemingly everywhere. Sophisticated tape machines with extra guitar tracks and Mary’s singing sister, Carol, were often hidden behind curtains backstage—adding enough sound to give the live Pauls’ performances the “multi-tracked” fullness of their records.
By the early ‘60s, however, the burgeoning rock scene, more than a dozen years of recording, and touring on the road took their toll on the couple. They stopped recording and live performances.
Ironically, after the divorce and a dozen years of retirement, Paul had his first hit again—the Grammy-winning guitar duo album, “Chester & Lester,” with Chet Atkins— in 1977, the same year Mary Ford died. The second Paul-Atkins guitar album, “Guitar Monsters,” a year later, was also Grammy-nominated and a good seller.
But it was only in 1984, with the Fat Tuesday’s shows, that Paul started gigging again regularly.
“I retired from playing the guitar in 1965 because I’d just burned out,” Paul says after a recent show in New York. “Because 24 hours a day, from the time you’re born, it was just enough. But after my open-heart surgery in Cleveland, in the ‘80s, the doctor asked me what I really wanted to do most in life. And I thought about it all night and realized it was to play in a small, intimate club.”
Originally, when he proposed a regular Monday night thing at Fat Tuesda’s, there was more than skepticism.
“The manager said, ‘We don’t even have music on Mondays,’ Paul remembers. “I said, ‘I’ll play for free.’ And the manager said, ‘We have music on Mondays.’ “Well,’” the guitarist adds, “I’ve been here for seven years. And I never played for free.”
“The Moon” and an 80-Foot Guitar
Since the Fat Tuesday’s gigs began, Paul’s career has skyrocketed again. In 1988, he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and starred in a Cinemax TV-tribute with guest pickers such as B.B. King, Stanley Jordan and David Gilmour.
According to Paul and his son, Russ, who videotapes most Fat Tuesday sessions and does audio-engineering chores at the home studio, there is now a four-record contract that will have Paul playing with the greatest names in blues, jazz, rock and country respectively.
“For the new records, we’re doing most of the recording at home. We’re totally renovating the old studio—putting in the latest digital equipment—where they used to film the Listerine commercials for the ‘50s TV show,” says Russ Paul. “For the rock album, a lot of the tracks are already laid down. Dad’s doing a rock-jam on “How High the Moon,” with everybody taking their turn. Just about everybody you can imagine is going to be on it: Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Elton John, Keith Richards, Slash. Dad’s real popular again. At the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas, they’ve put up an 80-foot Les Paul guitar which they want him to come out and sign.”
All of this activity has failed to slow Paul, anymore than the arthritis has tied his hands. He’s also constantly working in his home sound lab on new and better inventions, like improvements to his ‘70s innovation, the tape-delay Les Paulverizer.
“People ask me if I thought the world would pick up and improve upon my inventions,” Paul says. “I knew it would. Only a fool is going to say the world’s going to stop. Why shouldn’t guys play better, easier, make a better instrument and further everything they get involved in? I’m no prophet. But if I were to prophesize anything, it would be that technology will get better, less barbaric.”
And what does he prophesize, or at least hope for, in Les Paul’s future?
“My returning to the stage has worked out good not only for the heart doctor in Cleveland,” Paul says, “it’s helped me to fight my arthritis and any other problems I’ve had. My schedule’s jammed and it’s just wonderful. I’m very happy. I have maybe four things at home that should be completed that aren’t. I got my lab and I’m still doing my thing. At 76 years old, I feel like I’m 25. I’m ready to start.”