LES PAUL: LESSONS OF A LEGEND Guitarist Releases Rock CD at Age 90 Page 2
LES PAUL: LESSONS OF A LEGEND
Guitarist Releases Rock CD at Age 90
“They didn’t buy it,” recollects Mr. Paul. “When I went to Gibson with a guitar with no holes in it, they saw the limitations because they said the guy’s going to have to walk around with two guitars: one with holes in it so he can play normally, up with a microphone or however; and the other one he’s going to have to plug into an amplifier. It looked kind of stupid from their eyes. From my eyes, I was very excited.”
Gibson guitars called Mr. Paul’s concoction “a broomstick with pick-ups.” So while Bing Crosby (“The Crooner”) and Frank Sinatra (“The Swooner”) raced to pop music fame, “The Broomer” had to sweep his ego under a rug and keep trying.
In the early 40s, the notion of a guitar being hollow was still hallow: it was the empty space inside that made the sound; you fill up that space and you might as well be making broomsticks or baseball bats, not guitars.
The time was also not quite right for Mr. Paul’s vision, oracular as it might have been. In the Big Band Era, the big-bang instruments of choice were brass and wind. It was the Age of Swing and Mr. Paul was cooking up an Age of String.
What’s more, there was a general feeling that electronics would cheapen art, not deepen it; that the artistic would become mechanical. In terms of the guitar, that translated into a fear that the naturally sublime would be reduced to the electronically ridiculous and that easier access to playing the guitar—just plug it in!—would water down the general quality of music.
The predicament was a precursor to the fear—nay, prejudice—that many have today in the current digital revolution: that electronically transmitted writing and easy Internet access for all writers will lower the general quality of the written word.
In a democracy, both art and society improve with more freedom—whether it’s the freedom of a blog or a guitar built like a log. But, of course, in a democracy changes take time. Mr. Paul’s initial efforts with the guitar, consequently, were seen as the supernumerary exercises of a fanatical inventor rather than as the venturesome visions of a colossally creative artist.
Several years later, America had gone through another World War and the country was ready for a big, fat, amplified, celebratory sound.
But the guitar companies still weren’t ready for Les Paul. He was beaten to the production punch by the late Clarence Leo Fender. In 1948 a solidbody electric guitar went into mass production, and it was the Fender Broadcaster.
Mr. Paul, a superphenom who had learned to play just about every instrument around, found himself on second fiddle.
To a person less acclimatized to obstacles, the moment could have been catastrophic. But by 1948, Mr. Paul was well-launched on a heart-and-soul campaign to spend his life in music. He was already pop music’s Timex: he could take a lickin’, but keep on pickin’.
He even remembers the first musical lick he ever took. As a perky, red-headed boy of nine, he was taking piano lessons. One day the music teacher wrote a note to little Lester’s mother. The note told her that she was wasting her time sending her son for lessons.
Recalls a no-longer-so-little Lester: “She just pinned a note on me and I thought it was that I was going to win a scholarship. I didn’t realize that she had made a decision that I was a dud.”
The Waukesha Wizard was so one-track music-minded—even in his salad days—that the note curdled his ambition not a bit. He had started playing the harmonica at age seven; subsequently took up the piano, saxophone, drums, banjo, and, at age nine, the guitar.
His first guitar was a Troubador Silvertone from Sears. In his dash to create, Mr. Paul became a singing cowboy. He turned professional at age thirteen, called himself Rhubarb Red, and played any country fair, dance hall, Lions Club, or theater that would pay him.
Over the years, the country-picker established himself as a jazz player with all-night jam sessions; a bluesman with his studio work; and a pop music personality with radio shows.
Mr. Paul loved playing the guitar so much that he used to take the instrument out of its case each night, polish it, and position it in a place where it would be the first thing he’d see when he awoke in the morning.
By 1939 he had proven himself the curator of such a prodigious talent, F.D.R. invited him and his trio to play at the White House.
In the 1940s, he backed up performers ranging from Bing Crosby to Dinah Shore to the Andrews Sisters. Then in 1946, trying to stay on top in the quicksilver tides of the music business, he decided to squirrel himself away and work on cultivating a guitar sound of his own.
“I dropped my trio and the whole thing,” said Mr. Paul, “and locked myself in a room and said I’m going to come up with something—a different sound, a different concept, different everything.
“So Bing (Crosby) would say, ‘What the hell are you doing locking yourself in a garage for?’ I’d say, ‘I’m looking for something.’ ‘What are you looking for? I’ll help you find it!’ ‘Ain’t no one gonna help me find it. I don’t know what I’m looking for!'”
He looked for two years. The sound he brought forth as aesthetically acceptable was a rich ringing ripple. It was the musical manifestation of electric current in fluid motion and fleshy form, smooth as porcelain, yet deeply sensuous.
The feeling was taut and tender as it shimmered across radio airwaves and Victrola speakers. He had taken the solidbody device he’d created, and invested it with a unique spirit.
Concurrent with his new guitar style was his invention of multi-track recording. In 1948 Mr. Paul released the first eight-track records, “Lover” and “Brazil.” With the advent of multi-tracking, the record industry would never be the same. L.P. revolutionized the LP.
The following year, he married singer Mary Ford. As a duo in the early 50s, they sold millions upon millions of records, their biggest hit being “Vaya Con Dios” (“Go With God”).
In the midst of rising fame and fortune—mid-1952—Gibson finally manufactured Mr. Paul’s solidbody. Eleven years after “The Log,” the gold-top Les Paul Model went on the market.
Today the Les Paul guitar is a much-sought-after wand by professional musicians worldwide, as well as the bedrock of much great rock. As for Les Paul, the live-wire 2005-vintage human being, he’s still leading a multi-track life.
His public profile (if legends can be said to have something so mundane) continues to forge forward. For a guy supposedly in the September of his years, Les Paul is operating with January energy.
What he enjoys most these days is playing every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. It’s as if wherever he performs anymore becomes a room of historic acoustics.
Indeed, watching Les Paul play an electric solidbody guitar is like watching Henry Ford drive a car, Thomas Edison change a light bulb, Alexander Graham Bell dial 1-800-WHAT-HATH-GOD-WROUGHT.
The audiences that watch him at the Iridium are wrought from all corners of the music world: jazz buffs; rock fans; blues aficionados; pop music lovers; old and young; guitar devotees; male and female; rich and not-so-rich; unknown and known.
Among the “known” cosmopolites to take in his show at the Iridium were Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Tony Bennett and Steve Miller. They sit and listen and look up at him like footnotes at the bottom of a page.
Before busting a move into the Iridium nine years ago, Mr. Paul played a little cave of a jazz club in Greenwich Village called Fat Tuesday’s. The gig ran from 1984 to 1995.
Every Monday night he would treat audiences to tasty masterstrokes that gave the New York night a lustrous intensity. Les Paul may now be “permanently installed” in the Rock Hall of Fame, but, for many people, nothing could be more “permanently installed” than the memories of those Fat Tuesday nights . . .
. . . It’s a little after 8 p.m. on a Monday at Tuesday’s and the guy with the spindly, seventy-something frame approaches a guitar on a stool.
Polished to a marble sheen, the guitar glistens with the streaked browns of a late autumn sunset. Les Paul puts his hand to the guitar delicately and precisely, as if he were about to lift a month-old baby.