Death of the Guitar Man: Les Paul (1915-2009)
In the popular mind, guitarist Les Paul existed for half a decade: the years 1950-54, when he and his vocalist-wife Mary Ford enjoyed 16 Top 10 hits, including "How High the Moon" (No. 1 for nine weeks) and "Vaya Con Dios" (No. 1 for 11). Scanning the Great American Songbook for standards 20 or 30 years old, Paul would roast the chestnut into 2/4 time, add Ford's silky stylings and serve up a million seller like "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" or "Bye Blue Blues." Musical satisfaction guaranteed.
hat should suffice, for anyone whose memory contained chips of Paul's amazing facility with a sound he invented and perfected. As he told Stephen K. Peeples in the 60-page booklet that comes with the four-CD set Les Paul: The Legend and the Legacy (on the Gold Rush label), "That big, fat, round, ballsy sound with the bright high-end is the Les Paul sound. Nobody else has it." And if that's not enough, he was the original do-it-all recording mastermind: a producer-arranger-performer who carried his recording studio with him, courtesy of a few portable machines he built. Les was more.
Yet Paul, who died today at 94 in White Plains, N.Y., was no mere antique hitmaker to the rock generations that both learned from him and put his kind of music out of business. He was an inventor and an inspiration. He pioneered recording on tape, creating dozens of layers of sound with an early reel-to-reel tape machine. He designed (though he did not construct) one of the first synthesizers. He devised the first eight-track tape recording system, which would not become generally accepted until 15 years later, when the Beatles made their White Album. And he invented the Gibson Les Paul, an instrument used in various models by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and loads of other Guitar-zans.
In an interview with Frank Beacham, Paul joked that a lot of people didn't know he played a guitar. "They think I am one," he said. He was something more: a genius of a tinkerer, with machines and music — the Edison of pop.
Waiting for the Sunrise
He was born Lester Polsfuss (the family soon simplified the name to Polfus) in Waukesha, Wis., 18 miles west of Milwaukee. Encouraged by his mother, he learned piano, guitar and harmonica. His curiosity led him to all sorts of precocious experiments, like poking new holes in player-piano music to make new melodies, or, at 13, disconnecting a console-radio speaker and attaching a phonograph pickup. He bought his first Gibson guitar, an L-5 acoustic, which he promptly electrified. In local performances, he wired his guitar to radios stage right and left — voilà, stereo! "If you can be an engineer and a musician," he told David John Farinella for a biographical sketch in the 1999 Encyclopedia of Record Producers, "that's very complementary."
Billing himself as Rhubarb Red, Paul soon had a country-music act out of Chicago. He played harmonica and guitar and, between numbers, peddled rube humor. By the early '30s he was making $1,000 a week at the country stuff, but in the bustling Chicago music scene, there was so much more to hear and play. In the morning he was hillbilly, and at night he was playing jazz with Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Nat Cole and Art Tatum. He cut his first records in 1936, backing blues singer-pianist Georgia White as she belted out Andy Razaf's raunchy threat, "If I can't sell it, I'll keep sittin' on it, before I give it away." A year later, he formed his first trio, with bass player Ernie Newton and rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins (the elder half brother of Chet Atkins, with whom Paul cut the 1995 album Chester and Lester). They went east, and the Les Paul Trio got a New York City club date. More than 70 years later, another Paul trio was playing weekly gigs at Iridium, across from Lincoln Center.
In the '40s he got some flashy gigs — like a Jazz at the Philharmonic session with Nat Cole on piano and Illinois Jacquet on sax — but spent more time on electronic experimentation. He built a new guitar out of Epiphone parts and called it the Log. He used it in his recordings for the next decade. After assembling a recording studio in his garage (total cost: $415), he produced such performers as Gene Austin, the Andrews Sisters and his pal and patron Bing Crosby. His work with White, Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, as well as some Les Paul Trio sides, can be found on Les Paul: The Trio's Complete Decca Recordings Plus (1936-47).
Just after World War II, Crosby gave him one of the first Ampex tape recorders. It helped stoke in Paul the familiar dream of a trailblazing artist: to put on wax the music in his head. What emerged, in 1948, with the two-sided hit "Lover" and "Brazil," was something he called the New Sound. It comprised several tracks of brisk, intricate guitar work meticulously laid on top of one another; if he made a mistake with the final track, he had to start over again. The New Sound, which he refined in a later home studio in Mahwah, N.J., amounted to a one-man musical revolution.
To sell the sound to a mass audience, the one man needed one woman: a vocalist. Gene Autry recommended a singer who had worked with him, Colleen Summers. Paul and Summers were lovers from 1946, though they didn't marry until the end of 1949, back in Milwaukee. (Paul got his blood test from the father of Steve Miller, the blues-guitar man.) Summers was with Paul when their car crashed and he broke his back, both collarbones, six ribs and his nose. His right arm and elbow were crushed. Doctors suggested it be amputated, but he said no, so they took part of his leg and grafted it onto the pulpy bone. Fearing that his arm wouldn't regain its movement, Paul insisted that it be set at a right angle so he could still play guitar.
Paul had thought that Summers, schooled in country, would not feel at ease singing the jazz-inflected pop he wanted to play. But he finally decided that his domestic partner could be his professional one. For a two-star act, she needed a name nearly as short and simple as his; thus Mary Ford. They hit immediately: five Top 10 hits ("Tennessee Waltz," "Mockin' Bird Hill," "How High the Moon," "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" and "Whispering") in nine months. From August 1952 to March '53, they scored five more Top 10 hits ("My Baby's Coming Home," "Lady of Spain," "Bye Bye Blues," "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" and "Vaya Con Dios"). And when they weren't recording, the duo starred in a radio show, did guest spots on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town and played midtown Manhattan movie houses. Lines stretched up Broadway to see "America's musical sweethearts."
How High the Moon
For all the attention paid to Les Paul the technical innovator, not enough was paid to his skill as an arranger of guitar solos and vocal parts. Similarly, Ford didn't get her due as a singer. She looked the way she sang: smooth, clear, pretty. Her voice, tripled or sextupled in harmony, was the vocal version of his slide-guitar style. Her glissandi were intimate, as if she had been singing inside the microphone. (She was, in fact, the first vocal artist to sing not a foot or so away from the microphone, as most studio singers did then, but virtually on top of it, the way it's done today.) Her vocal approach was less an attack than a seduction — sensuous in an elevated, healthy way, like aerobic sex in a ski lodge. She sold those old tunes with a modern attitude that never stooped to irony or anachronism. And she never put more into a song than she did with "How High the Moon."
" 'How High the Moon' had terrific verve," said Bill Wyman, long the Rolling Stones' bassist, "proof at last that pop could provide stylish, instrumental inventiveness." So it's instructive to listen closely to "How High the Moon" — not a chore, since the song provides as much musical exhilaration now as it did when it was released, in March 1951. It encapsulates the lithe popular art of all those Les and Mary singles — the density and clarity, the distinctiveness of his guitar voice and her intimate vocal instrument, the heart and the fun. It's a number that expresses the choral lilt of early-'50s pop and the electric drive of mid-'50s rock, as if "Mr. Sandman" had married "Peggy Sue."
Right from the start, Paul's arrangement has more hooks than a Chicago abattoir. ("We used to start our gigs with the opening riffs from 'How High the Moon,' " said another Paul, the one with the Beatles. "Everybody was trying to be a Les Paul clone in those days.") Do you remember that descending pattern (C, C7, F, F-minor, G) that concluded primal rock-'n'-roll numbers like Billy Haley's "Rock Around the Clock"? Here, Paul begins with that lick; he also anticipates and reverses the fade-out ending of so many early rock-'n'-roll songs by beginning with a very quick fade-in. Four seconds into the record, Paul is already making history.
Then Ford takes over with her menthol-smooth voice, multiplied into three-part harmony by Paul's studio gizmonics. She coos, "Somewhere there's
mu-u-u-sic," coaxing four syllables out of the word by gliding over them rather than hiccuping through them. She wants the listener to know this is an up-tempo love song, not a stuttering novelty. In the bridge — "There is no moon above, and love is far away too" — she lightly swings "above" and "and love," almost gulping each first syllable. You expect her to do the same with "is far," but she smartly refuses to surrender to giddy syncopation. She gives the final words in the phrase their full traditional value. When she reaches the last couplet — "Until you will, how still my heart,/ How high the moon" — she extends the "high" into a sighing "hiiiiigh," then softens "the moon" into almost a whisper of regret. The diminuendo is a subtle reminder that, for all its drive and bounce, this is a song of longing. Until the lover returns, the moon is just a distant prop for melancholy.
The softening also leads smartly into Paul's solo. He feeds out of Ford's vocal with a wah-guitar wail that seems to hunch the shoulders of a note, then relax into some fleet picking in Paul's trademark bubbly style as if he's somehow playing underwater and the notes have quickly risen to the surface to pop in the clear air. That's the first chorus. The second features a lot of the power chords that later rock guitarists would borrow. It climaxes in an ascending "aaaah" from the Ford voices that transports us into the third instrumental chorus, where a few more Lawrence Welky bubbles return the number to vocal land.
Uncharacteristically naked (her voice alone, not double- or triple-tracked) for a few syllables, Ford reprises the first chorus, giving each word double value, again asserting the lyric's wistfulness before revving for the finale. Her voice ascends — "How! High! The! Moon!" — and Les' guitar descends, ending as he began, with the rock riff and adding a puckish triple grace note. He and Ford get in and out of this 21-track mini-masterpiece in a breathless two minutes and four seconds.
Just One More Chance
In 1955, the first official year of rock 'n' roll, the hits stopped coming. A nice married couple was suddenly sooooo 1954. Paul looked less like a genius-guitarist than an irrelevant uncle. Paul and Ford did commercials for the Robert Hall clothing chain ("When the values go up, up, up/ And the prices go down, down, down") and Rheingold Beer. They broke up the act — and their marriage. (Ford died at 52 in 1976.) Paul pretty much retired. He survived quintuple-bypass heart surgery. It was one of the first operations of its kind — another Les Paul innovation. Back from the dead, he was named to the Rock Hall of Fame in 1988. At the induction ceremony, Jeff Beck said, "I've copied more licks off Les Paul than I'd care to admit." Paul subsequently said to Stephen Peeples, "I'm glad I was able to give the kids some toys to play with."
In later days, the Merlin of Mahwah could hardly play with the toys he invented. Arthritis froze all the digits on his right hand and all but two on his left. His fingers, which once flew over the frets at Mach 2, could hardly do the walking. "You know, I can't do what I used to do when I was 20 or 30," he told David John Farinella. "With the arthritis I got — Christ, I got no fingers. But what I got, I play. A knuckle here, a knuckle there. You forget about the arthritis and everything else when you're playing."
He was like Henri Matisse, in a wheelchair in his 80s, who continued to create art — cutting out bits of colored paper, painting with his brush in his mouth, supervising his decoration of the Chapel of the Rosary in St.-Paul de Vence because it was what he did, because it kept him alive. That's why Les Paul continued to play weekly gigs at Iridium well into his 90s, until shortly before his death, putting the final touches, grace notes, on the edifice of his achievement. Each Monday evening, two legends would fill that tiny stage: a living legend, Les Paul, and the precious memory of his partner. One night he closed a set with the plaintive ballad "Just One More Chance." He was playing it, he said, "in remembrance of my partner Mary."
ROCK IT LES !!!!