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January 1, 2002IM -
From the time he was a young boy and his mother would let him “take something apart” if he got all his chores done on time, Les Paul has had a drive to learn what makes something work. The family piano, the radio, and various household appliances — Paul took apart whatever he could get his hands on. And invariably it worked better when he was done with it. When he was about nine years old, he got his hands on a guitar, and the world has never been the same. Over the years he tinkered and toyed, figuring out how to get his guitar to play through his radio. And this was just the beginning. He didn’t just want to change the way his instrument sounded live; he wanted to change the way live music sounded when it was recorded.
Paul lives and breathes through his guitar, even at 86. Every Monday night at the Iridium in Manhattan, the Les Paul Trio performs to a packed house. But his playing, which defines his life to this day (despite his fairly severe arthritis), is only a part of what makes Paul the living icon that he is. He is the inventor of the solid body electric guitar — which exists today as Gibson’s most popular Les Paul model — almost unchanged from when it was first introduced in 1952. He also introduced the world to multitrack recording with his 1948 hit “Brazil.” The song featured six guitar parts, all played by Paul. The pioneer of overdubbing and electronic reverb didn’t stop there. He fashioned the first 8-track by stacking eight tape machines on top of one another and synchronizing them to play perfectly together. Virtually all of modern music, whether recorded in the world’s most technologically advanced studios or by someone working with a home-recording system in their basement, is made using innovations sparked by the inventions of Les Paul.
A lifetime member of both Local 802 in New York and Local 47 in Los Angeles, Paul will always be grateful to the union for the assistance given to him when he was in a devastating car accident in 1948 that shattered his right arm and elbow. At Paul’s insistence, the doctors set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle a guitar and pick at the strings.
As a musician, Paul soared to popularity in the ’50s with his late wife, Mary Ford. The combination of Ford on vocals, Paul on guitar — along with Paul’s cutting edge re-cording skills — sold millions of records, including such hits as “How High the Moon,” and “Vaya Con Dios.” He has influenced almost all genres of music since the ’50s, especially blues, jazz, country, and southern rock. Today his music of choice is jazz, although he won a GRAMMY in 1977 for Best Country Instrumental Award Performance with the late Chet Atkins for their “Chester and Lester” album. In 2001, Paul received a Technical GRAMMY award.
Paul continues to absorb knowledge like a sponge. “You would think that a person would say ‘Well, I’ve retired, I’m going to go on a boat and just drop a line and wait for that cork to go down,'” says Paul. “Instead, in my case, it’s just a constant learning, a constant curiosity, to see what’s going on — the great steps forward, along with the obstacles that come with progress.
“We have mono, and we’ll get our music to where we’re very proud of it. And then we make it stereo, and the problem becomes twice as tricky. And so then you go to surround sound, and it just goes deeper, deeper, deeper. And then you get to digital and from digital, it goes on and on. It just never ends. It’s amusing, it’s interesting, and it’s scary — it’s just something. It’s a wonderful time with the way we’re progressing, when we think of where we were a couple of hundred years ago. But I’m not sure that we’re not getting to a point where we’re outsmarting ourselves!”
Les Paul is just as likely to tell you about his need for speed as he is to share his passion
for music and the manipulation of sound. But even those stories eventually come around to music.
“This one state trooper pulled me over, and I told him ‘I’m Les Paul, I’m a musician, a guitar-player,’ and he says, ‘Well, I hate music.’ Now how do you hate music? So I thought I might be in trouble, but then I told him that his radar was off. I offered to drive by again at exactly 70. He liked the idea, and since I helped him calibrate his radar gun, he let me go!
“Usually they see the license and say something like, ‘The Les Paul?’ Sometimes he’ll say, ‘I play guitar,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah? You any good?’ Now I’ve always got my guitar in the trunk, so I’ll get it out and hand him the guitar and he’ll start to play, and I’ll show him how he could be better if he did it this way or that way, and here I am with this police officer with his left foot up on the bumper …”
Usually the officer is so ecstatic about getting an impromptu lesson from a guitar legend that he forgets why he pulled him over in the first place.
Paul is the first to admit that life as a professional musician has its perks. But he’s not going to tell anyone that it’s easy. “Once in a while someone will come up and tell me that they bought their son a guitar, and I’m tempted to say ‘Why?!'” laughs Paul. “No, that’s terrible advice to give,” he went on, serious. “The guitar is a wonderful, wonderful instrument; it does so much for a person. It solves a lot of problems, helps you put up with the world. I guess this applies to music all around the board; you can always turn to your guitar and shut the world off temporarily.”
For those who don’t play, the guitar has a way of getting under your skin. Which would be the only way to explain why someone suffering from painful arthritis in his hands still shows up to the club every Monday evening to jam. “It’s something musicians can do, which probably most other people can’t, and that is to go to such a ripe old age and continue be able to communicate through your instrument with other people, young, old, it doesn’t matter.” He also feels a responsibility to continue to entertain people for as long as he can. “There’s a thing about jazz; it’s serious, generally speaking,” explains Paul. “I have a whole different approach to it. To me there’s a lot of laughs, lot of humor. Put it this way: people pay to come in, and they probably come with one thought in mind, and that is to be really turned on with a lot playing. Music, music, music. They come in here to get their mind off of their problems and to be entertained; that’s what we do. And when they leave they say, ‘Jeez, I’ve had a wonderful time!’
“I have three other players; they’re all great. There’s Nicki Parrott on bass, she’s just great. There’s Lou Pallo, who has been with me many years. He’s the foundation, he plays the rhythm and the background and he sings. Then I have Frank Vignola, who is a very fine technical guitar player. It’s great to have the three of them up there with me, because there’s a lot of things that I would put on a record — where I could put down multiple tracks — but when I come out on stage I can only do one. With my hands and the arthritis, I’m lucky if I get one-tenth of what I’d like to do. So having these other three musicians with me, we work around it. They just give me great support. That’s where it really shines, the mix of all of us. They work hard!”
And Paul has no intention of slowing down any time soon. In addition to playing every Monday, there are several books that he’s “threatening” to write, as well as several other archival and museum projects he’s involved in. “Every once in while I’ll take on a fistful and go for it,” he says. “It’s like there’s always more, and more, and more.”
Although his one-night-a-week gig is just about all his hands can deal with nowadays, Paul cannot stress enough the importance of practice to an aspiring professional.
“Practice. That’s the thing,” he asserts. “You need to practice all the time. If you really want to be with it, you have to just absolutely, constantly keep on your playing. My advice to anyone is that there just aren’t enough hours in a day; be religious about it. That’s the key.”
The thing about practicing is that playing also breeds creation. With a constant flow of music from your head right out of your fingertips, you never know what you may end up with. “If you spend enough time with it, you can really communicate with that guitar,” says Paul. “You surprise yourself. Before you can think of it, you’ve already played it.”
While the life of a professional musician has got to be one of the most enjoyable careers, it’s also probably one of the most difficult in the sheer amount of time it takes to maintain your craft. “It’s a lot different than being a plumber,” laughs Paul. “But I’ll tell you what, that plumber isn’t jamming at midnight, either! He doesn’t come home and say to his wife, ‘Hey, put your clothes on, I want to take you over and show you this job I just did!’
“Here’s another little bit of wisdom that runs across my mind,” muses Paul, “It’s not so much the intro as it is the ending. It’s easy to walk out on the stage, but you better have something to get the hell off! That’s where you get caught. You get out there and it doesn’t matter — you could be up, down, in the middle, whatever — but when it’s time to leave, you better have something up your sleeve, to be able to give it your best shot!”