Les Paul Still Playing Still Innovating

Celebrities, Made in America, People, Traditions
on April 23, 2005

Les Paul strums the tan and black Gibson electric guitar that bears his name. It’s 5:45 p.m., and Paul is doing an extensive sound check before he joins his five-piece band onstage for the first of two shows he performs every Monday night in New York City’s Iridium Jazz Club. The audience soon arrives, and first-timers are amazed to see this 89-year-old man playing the intricate guitar parts in standards such as How High the Moon almost as fast as he did in his younger days.

“I’m still here, and I’m still creating,” says Paul, the legendary guitarist, inventor and recording engineer who designed a line of namesake electric guitars and pioneered techniques like multi-tracking and the echo effect. And even though he now makes his home in Mahwah, N.J. (pop. 24,062), his heart is never far from the small towns in Wisconsin that nurtured his creative growth.

The Grammy winner, who began playing guitar at about age 9, recalls a comment made when he was performing at Beekman’s drive-in restaurant in Brookfield, Wis. (pop. 38,649), that set him on his journey of innovation in both the playing and design of the electric guitar. “A fellow came into this barbecue drive-in, and thank God for him,” says Paul, who was then known as “Red Hot Red” for the color of his hair. “He was a critic, unintentionally. He wrote a note to the carhop asking to deliver this message to me: ‘Hey Red, I can hear your voice and your harmonica playing, but the guitar’s not audible.’”

So Paul, then about 12 years old, set out to make sure his guitar would come through loudly and clearly to everyone in his audience.

From the late 1920s onward, Paul constantly experimented to improve the sound. He would plug in radio speakers and then stuff the guitar’s body with socks, shorts, and even his mother’s tablecloth—”everything to muffle the sound so that it wouldn’t feed back,” he says—pioneering the modern solid-body electric guitar. He would later find success by filling the body with solid wood, and in 1952, Gibson introduced its first Les Paul electric guitar based on his designs.

By then, Paul also had gained fame playing his guitar on hit songs by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, and in the 1950s had several Top 10 pop hits with his late wife, singer Mary Ford, including the No. 1s How High the Moon and Vaya Con Dios. Those hits were important because they unveiled his technique of multi-track recording, or layering music parts on top of each other. Paul has influenced rock guitarists such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, and other famous musicians such as Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett have frequently joined him onstage at his Iridium shows.

Paul’s inventions have gone hand in hand with his needs as a performer, and he is still innovating. After he got arthritis, he developed a bigger pick so that he could still play. Dealing with a hearing loss, Paul also is working with doctors from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio to create a hearing aid to help musicians and others pick up more tones, words and phrases.

Through it all, Paul has kept in touch with his hometown of Waukesha, Wis. (pop. 64,825), which he last visited in October when the town created Les Paul Day. He says he will never forget so many people who helped him there, including the teachers who let him write history reports on musical instruments and scheduled breaks to let him perform for the class. And Paul, who signs many an autograph, is especially welcoming when Wisconsin fans show up at the Iridium. “If you’re from Wisconsin, you’re in,” says Susan Masino, author of Famous Wisconsin Musicians.

Paul insists, however, that audiences everywhere have much in common, and, after a while, even New York City feels like a small town. New Yorkers, he says, are “a little more direct about things, and they get right to the point. But you get used to them, and you find out they’re the same people anyway.”

For more information, log on to www.iridiumjazzclub.com.