LES PAUL: Still Changing Songs
Guitar legend Les Paul is onstage at Manhattan’s Iridium Club, where he has been its star attraction every Monday evening for the past 13 years. With the practiced timing of someone who has been entertaining audiences for more than eight decades, he calls out to longtime rhythm guitarist Lou Pallo, “How old are you now?… 71,” he repeats, in mock exasperation, eyes widening in disbelief. “That’s too old to be playing the guitar.”
The audience’s members, most of whom are aware that Paul is 93, eat it up. The love and affection in the air is readily discernable. Three of Paul’s disciples, Eric Johnson, Zakk Wylde, and Joe Satriani will join the maestro onstage during the evening’s proceedings, where the likes of Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Keith Richards and godson Steve Miller have also previous stopped in to pay homage.
Although arthritis has affected his formidable guitar prowess which now makes chording or swift chromatic runs impractical, his undeniable charm and professionalism, plus the chance to see this iconic musician in the flesh renders those flaws impervious as Paul cheerfully runs though such old favorites as “Caravan” and “Tennessee Waltz.”
Les Paul’s musical career is, of course, one of the most celebrated of the past century. Born Lester Polsfuss on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wis., he is not only the inventor of the solid body electric guitar which bears his name, the one which has been effectively utilized by such esteemed axe wielders as Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Slash, Duane Allman, Ron Wood, Neil Young, Eddie Van Halen and numerous others, Paul is also the pioneer of multi-tracking which he virtually invented in the late 1940s, along with such other crucial innovations as reverb, phasing, tape delay, and close-miking.
As a recording artist, Paul hit paydirt in the late ‘40s when he teamed up with wife Mary Ford to create a string of memorable hits including “Vaya Con Dios,” “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” and their signature hit, “How High the Moon” in 1951. Their popularity was such that between 1950 and 1954, they ran off 16 Top Ten hits, five during a highly productive nine month period.
Although rock and roll’s emergence in 1955 rendered their sound passé to the new generation of record buyers, Les and Mary’s TV show enjoyed an impressive 14-year run which ended in 1963, two years after their divorce. Paul then went into a period of semi-retirement as a live performer and recording artist, but in 1976 returned with the Grammy Award-winning album, Chester And Lester, an inspired pairing with fellow guitar legend, the late Chet Atkins.
A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and five-time Grammy Award winner, the spry nonagenarian has no intention of slowing down. His most recent recordings only two years ago featured such staunch admirers as Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Peter Frampton and Sting. He is also currently in the process of designing two new electric guitars and four new amplifiers, one which tentatively will be called “The Dream.”
Paul cautions, “A lot of people say, ‘Boy, I can’t wait until I’m 65.’ Then they go down to Florida and die a few months later. My philosophy is that if you love your work, it’s not a dirty word.”
From all outward appearances the so-called Wizard of Waukesha still has a lot to contribute to an industry he helped create.
How did you happen to begin your career a Rhubarb Red?
Well, when I first started, I got an offer to play in St. Louis, and they wanted to call me that. When I got down there they said my natural hair wasn’t red enough. I first believed they were saying it as a joke, but before I knew it, they were putting henna on my hair to make it redder. They asked who my mentor was, and I said, Pie Plant Pete, and pie plant of course means rhubarb. Hank Richards, the station’s program director, and all the rest of them decided that was a better name for me than Red Hot Red, which I had been using.
What attracted you to the harmonica when you were only eight?
When I was a little kid, I was sittin’ on our front porch one day, and these sewer diggers were out front. On their lunch hour, they would have a little time of their own, and this one fellow would play the harmonica. I was very intrigued with a sound I wasn’t too familiar with, but it sure attracted me. There were no stairs on our porch, so I would just jump off and stare at this fellow. I was in awe with the fact that he not only played the harmonica, he played it good. The more I looked and watched…until he finally said to me, “I think you’d like to have this harmonica more than I do. I’m gonna give it to you.” After he handed it to me, my mother’s hand came in to take it away, and she says, “You don’t play this thing until I boil it!”
Were you aware or influenced by any of the great early African-American blues harp players?
Well, there were several good harmonica players, maybe three or four of them that I was terribly interested in, because I could learn from them. One of them was DeFord Bailey who performed on WSM in Nashville. In fact, he was one of the first performers to be on WSM when they started the Grand Old Opry. So, I went down to see him and he showed me all the things that he knew on the harmonica. There were a few others players around Chicago that I listened to after I left St. Louis and Springfield, Mo. By the time I got to the World’s Fair in Chicago, I was deep into the harmonica as well as the guitar.