No other guitarist has ever been as complete a musician as Les Paul. He was
equal parts showman, technician, serious craftsman, fun-loving imp, immediately
identifiable stylist and versatile journeyman. The car mechanic’s son from
Waukesha, Wisconsin covered the gamut of American genres from 1932, when, as
Rhubarb Red, he performed country on St. Louis’s KMOX radio, through blues
(his first recordings were as an accompanist to Georgia White in 1936), through
jazz (playing with big bands, as well as the likes of Art Tatum and J.J. Johnson)
to the pop period that made him a household name, to 2009, where he was in his
thirteenth year of a regular Monday night gig at Iridium at 51st and Broadway
in New York, tying together his stylistic forays over the decades.
By Barney Quick
Along the way, he was out in front of the twentieth century’s technological
developments. As a kid in Waukesha, he built a crystal-set radio, so he could
listen to his idols, such as cowboy singer Gene Autry and jazz guitarist Eddie
Lang. He built his own amplifiers in his early professional days, as well as
exploring the possibilities of using pickups to transmit guitar-string vibrations
from a solid piece of wood through them. Of course, the Gibson Guitar Company
found out about his work and enlisted him as a design consultant. The Gibson
Les Paul has been one of the most sought-after models among guitarists since
its debut in 1952.
Pop crooners in the 1940s loved to work with him. In particular, his trio backed
Bing Crosby on several hits, and the two became lifelong friends.
Through his boyhood hero Gene Autry, he met Colleen Summers, with whom he worked
in a country setting. The two began dating, a relationship that lasted even
after their country collaboration ran its course. A sudden need for a singer
on a road date led to her return to his bandstand, rechristened as pop vocalist
Mary Ford. They married in December 1949 and had a string of hits on Capitol
throughout the 1950s, as well as a weekly television show, Les Paul and Mary
Ford at Home.
records were made in the garage studio at their home in Hollywood. Les was pioneering
soon-to-be-standard studio effects such as overdubbing and delayed echo. On
such hits as “How High the Moon,” “Vaya Con Dios” and “The
World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” both Mary’s vocals and Les’s
guitar parts can be heard in irrepressibly joyous harmony with themselves.
Ironically, the advent of rock and roll, a musical form that Les’s innovations
had done so much to make possible, edged the duo off the pop charts by the 1960s.
They divorced in 1964. Each continued to record in various configurations, but
it was clear from subsequent interviews and conversations that Les harbored
a very special place for her in his heart to the end of his days.
He and Chet Atkins won a Grammy in 1977 for their album Chester and Lester,
a giddy revisiting of several standards that each of them had surely played
thousands of times. Their two unmistakable styles intertwine and compliment
each other with the grace that only seasoned veterans could bring to such a
project. Chet was the country gentleman, with a full, round tone and a front-porch
ease that served as a marvelous counterpoint to Les’s high-register thirty-second-note
exuberance. There’s also a delightful serving of banter, some centering
on music and some lightly risqué, between the old friends.
His Iridium show was classic Les. He was backed by a trio - second guitar,
bass and piano. His randy humor was on full display in this setting, much of
it directed toward the blonde female bassist, whose job was to roll her eyes
in “oh-Les-you-rascal” fashion. The runs weren’t as dazzling
as they had been in his heyday, but they were fluid and masterful to the end.
Les Paul was an American icon in the richest sense of the term. He took full
advantage of his freedom to do what he loved with his life, and with every application
of pick to strings, he swung hard.