I am such a putz. I missed another chance to meet and see a legend play. Back in January I connected with John Colianni and discovered that Les Paul was still alive and well and playing with Colianni’s band every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. I decided immediately that I had to go see this legend before his mortal coil called it a day. I started asking around – especially to guitarist friends I jam with – but nobody seemed too thrilled about a 12-hour drive to NYC, so I just put my plansÂ on the back-burner and eventually forgot about the whole idea.
Last night I was chilling with a friend after a gruelling mountain bike ride and I saw a short clip of Les at the Iridium come up on the TV. Before anything was said, I knew what it meant – I screwed up again. I should have just gone to NYC on my own. Some of the best musical performances I have seen have been without family and friends.
It is probably impossible to overstate Paul’s influence on the development of recorded music, but especially the development of the electric guitar and the various sounds that have been engineered from them over the last 60 years. Paul was the innovator for electic guitar.
As for memorial comments, I think Tom Morello put it best when he said “If you have ever rocked or been rocked, you can thank Les Paul.”
Along with being an engineering genius who revolutionized the recording industry, Lester William Polsfuss was one helluva picker, and so I decided to put together a short medley podcast of his material from the 1950s. The songs below are edited to highlight Les’ picking, but you can hear a sampling of Mary Ford’s (his wife at the time) sweet voice in the Good Old Summertime. You can download the complete songs in the Greatest Hits of Les Paul and Mary Ford.
- The World is Waiting for the Sunrise
- Bye Bye Blues
- In the Good Old Summertime (featuring former wife Mary Ford on vocals)
- Meet Mister Callaghan
And if that didn’t blow you away, listen to these recordings from the 1940s:
Les Paul, one of the most revered guitarists in history and the father of the electric guitar, passed away last night, August 12th at the age of 94. Paulâ€™s manager confirmed to Rolling Stone that cause of death was respiratory failure, and a statement from Gibson indicates Paul was suffering from severe pneumonia and died at a hospital in White Plains, New York.
An inductee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Grammy Hall of Fame, Paul is credited as the inventor of the electric body guitar and the pioneer of recording techniques like electronic echo and multi-tracking. Paul also had a celebrated career as both a solo artist and with singer Mary Ford, his wife until 1964. In 2003, Rolling Stone named Les Paul to our list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time, and his influence on guitar greats who followed him is undeniable. â€œHe was one of the most stellar human beings Iâ€™ve ever known,â€ Slash posted on his Twitter today, referring to Paul as his â€œfriend and mentor.â€ Chickenfoot guitarist Joe Satriani released a statement that reads, â€œLes Paul set a standard for musicianship and innovation that remains unsurpassed. He was the original guitar hero, and the kindest of souls.â€
In the early â€™50s, Paul and Ford had a string of hits including Mockinâ€™ Bird Hill,â€ â€œHow High the Moon,â€ â€œThe World Is Waiting for the Sunriseâ€ and â€œVaya Con Dios.â€ Paul also began experimenting with the electric guitar, building the Les Paul Recording Guitar, an instrument that allowed for â€œhotâ€ pickups and â€œfatterâ€ tone than the Fender on the market. Paul linked up with Gibson Guitars and his six-string became one of the guitar makerâ€™s signatures.
Around this time, Paul also made the first-ever eight-track recording, as well as the dual-pickup guitar, the 14-fret guitar, and various types of electronic transducers used both in guitars and recording studios. For his achievements as a technician, Paul was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005, joining Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.
Paul was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915, a fact noted in the name of the 1980 Les Paul documentary The Wizard of Waukesha. Last November, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honored Paul with its annual American Music Masters Concert, where Slash, ZZ Topâ€™s Billy Gibbons, Richie Sambora and the Patti Smith Groupâ€™s Lenny Kaye paid tribute to Paul (watch footage from the event, below). Kaye told the audience, â€œBefore Les, guitars were only amplified. Les made them truly electric.â€ During his acceptance speech, Paul joked, â€œEverybody thought I was a guitar until I played here tonight.â€ One thing is for certain: Les Paul is responsible for changing the way rock & roll sounds and he will be greatly missed.
Full Rolling Stone Biography:
With apologies to Hendrix and Clapton, inventor and musician Les Paul, who died Wednesday at 94, was the most influential rock guitarist ever – even though he was only tangentially involved in rock. Paul was important not just for his instrumental virtuosity, but also for his groundbreaking studio developments and creation of the Gibson solid-body guitar that bears his name, the quintessential rock instrument made famous by such legends as Clapton, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen.
Paul, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 by guitarist Jeff Beck, died in White Plains, New York, from complications of pneumonia. At the Capitol Records building in Hollywood, where Paul helped develop state-of-the-art recording studios beginning in 1948, the flag was lowered to half-mast.
Shortly after news of his death hit the Web on Thursday, Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with tributes. Slash, whom Paul referred to last year as a “dear friend,” tweeted that the guitar innovator “was one of the most stellar human beings I’ve ever known.”
Gary Rossington, the Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist whose fiery Les Paul licks help bring “Free Bird” to its chaotic climax, thinks about Paul every time he steps in front of an audience. “I play a Les Paul guitar every night,” said Rossington, whose admiration for Paul doesn’t stop when he leaves the stage. “I have a framed T-shirt on my wall signed by Les Paul. He was an amazing guitarist.”
Derek Trucks remembers playing at Paul’s 90th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall in 2005. “We had some great musical moments,” said Trucks. “We did an instrumental version of ‘Goodnight Irene.’ He was always a really sweet guy.”
By all accounts, Paul was humble about his importance to music and admired his fellow musicians, regardless of their age. “I learn from them, I enjoy them,” he told Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene in an unpublished interview last November. “If I’m around the rock guys, I enjoy playing along with them. When I’m with the jazz people, I enjoy playing jazz.”
As a musician, Paul played a smooth but daring mixture of jazz and country. In addition to inventing his famous solid-body guitar in 1941, he developed studio techniques throughout the Thirties and Forties that are still used in music today, including delay and echo effects, as well as overdubbing and multitracking. His experimentation paved the way for such groundbreaking works as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heats Club Band and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, as well as almost every pop song on the charts today.
He formed the Les Paul Trio in the late Thirties, playing alongside stars like Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. By the late Forties, he and former wife Mary Ford began recording together, and throughout the Fifties scored a string of Top 10 hits for Capitol including “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Mockingbird Hill” and “Vaya con Dios.”
Born Lester William Polfuss on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he learned the harmonica at age eight but soon moved on to the banjo and then guitar. All along, he invented devices to improve his instruments, like making a pickup to amplify his acoustic guitar. During his teens he played professionally with country bands and recorded hillbilly songs under the name Rhubarb Red. He also liked the jazzier style of guitarist Django Reinhardt, and after forming the Les Paul Trio in 1936, moved to New York City, where the Trio backed singers like Crosby and became regulars on Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians radio show.
Paul kept tinkering with new ways to make a guitar sound different, and by the early Forties had created a solid-body electric guitar that could prolong a single note, making it sound like a horn. Called “The Log,” it was the precursor to his Gibson Les Paul guitar. He then began working on new studio techniques: putting microphones close to individual instruments to reduce noise and help separate specific sounds, playing and recording along with other recordings to create multiple tracks. By the late Fifties, he had invented an eight-track recording machine that would pave the way for producers like George Martin, who created much of the Beatles’ mid-Sixties works using Paul’s multitrack technology.
After a car accident in 1948 left Paul with a severe shoulder injury, he designed a guitar that allowed him to continue playing. That year, he and Ford released the hit ” Brazil,” a song that included six multitracked guitar parts. The following year, he launched a radio show and invented an effects-generating synthesizer called the “Les Paulverizer,” whose technology is still used onstage by bands today.
Les Paul recalls inventing his solid-body electric guitar in a 1975 Rolling Stone Q&A. His recording career with Ford flowered in the Fifties, and Paul was soon hired by the Gibson guitar company to design a new instrument. Introduced in 1952, his Gibson Les Paul was a variation on “The Log,” but its sleek design had much more aesthetic appeal. “We had a monster,” said Paul. “We had something that could really, really be powerful.” A monster, indeed – it was so loud and so pretty that it eventually made its way into the hands of blues-rock pioneer Clapton and remains a staple of hard rock today, used by artists like Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica and U2′s The Edge.
After divorcing Ford in 1964, Paul focused on his guitar designs, and continued creating effects and amplification devices. He performed occasionally, and in 1976 recorded the Grammy-winning Chester and Lester along with fellow guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins. In 1981, after undergoing heart bypass surgery, he began performing more regularly at jazz festivals and in New York clubs, with famous guests like Paul McCartney or Tony Bennett sometimes sitting in with him. In 2005, at age 90, Paul recorded American Made, World Played with a string of guests including Clapton, Beck and Keith Richards. The album won Grammy awards for best pop instrumental performance and best rock instrumental performance.
When asked last year if Paul thought he’d still be playing at 100, he said, “As long as the people put up with me, and I’m having fun doing it, why not do it?”