Aug 14, 2009

Les Paul

A gifted guitarist and inventor died yesterday at the age of 94.

His electric guitar, manufactured by Gibson as the Les Paul model, has been a favorite of rock and blues guitarists for half a century. His recordings with wife Mary Ford were best-sellers in the early 1950s, and the Internet is full of tributes to his life and work. The obituary from Rolling Stone Magazine called him "the most influential rock guitarist ever - even though he was only tangentially involved in rock."

For twenty years, I hosted a radio show where we played records by Les Paul and Mary Ford almost every day, big hits like The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise. Then one day I found an LP in the station library called Chester and Lester, which paired Les Paul with Chet Atkins on a session from 1976. Funny, impromptu, two seasoned pros kidding each other on open mics while they talked about what they were going to play next, great stuff. It sold well to country fans but was mostly old standards.

To my regret, I didn't save a copy from my radio days. Then last summer Marie and I made a pilgrimage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where Les Paul is among the honorees right along with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. It turns out they sell CDs by hall of fame artists and I was able to get Chester and Lester. All right!

One day in 1986, an album came to the station from Atlantic Records called Play It Again, Joe, with Joe Bushkin. Always a sucker for liner notes, I checked this one to discover that the producer was none other than Les Paul.

Now, if you think Les Paul's name is less well-known than he deserved, try dropping Joe Bushkin's name and see how far you get. Loved by musicians, invisible to the public, no hits. But this album had a great sound, and the liner notes by Les Paul helped to explain why. Going the opposite route from the innovative multi-tracking and overdubbing that made him famous, for this project he recorded everything all at once, without any dubbing except the strings (added in a second session), even the piano and vocal. What an eye-opener, and an ear-opener.

His enthusiastic essay from the line notes was a breadcrumb to be treasured, a generous genius revealing his techniques to anyone who happened along. I read those few paragraphs over and over, every time I played the record. Cuts like Gershwin's Love Is Here to Stay and One For My Baby (And One More for the Road), sounding as realistic as anything you could imagine. Later I put those techniques into effect the best I could when I produced my own demos.

The record has been out of print for years, but today I found 15 used copies for sale at Amazon. The CD version apparently combines Play It Again, Joe with another album called The Road to Oslo.

Bob Edwards' radio show on XMPR is partly to blame for inspiring this blog to begin with. This morning on the way to work I heard him re-airing his April 2008 interview with Les Paul. I happened to hear it on its first airing and was delighted to hear it again. What a wonderful human being, all his humanity and humor coming through despite the crackle in his voice at the age of 93. Thanks, Bob, and by the way, how do you pick so many topics that I really, really enjoy?

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