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Home > Magazine > Article Archive > News

Les Paul, 1915-2009
Posted on Sunday, September 13, 2009 @ 15:28:35 UTC
Topic: Commentary
Les Paul 1915-2009
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

Les Paul at Irridium Jazz Club in NYC,  2008

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.

Their 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.

Les Paul












 
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