That Old Feeling: Les Is More

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At Iridium, a basement jazz club across from Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Les Paul sidles up a narrow aisle between tables. He is smaller, more gnomish, but still recognizably the wizard of Waukesha, the garage mechanic's son who revolutionized the way music was played and recorded. And since he turned 86 just two days before, and is looking forward to celebrating his birthday with some famous friends, Paul has a special glow. He sits on a stool surrounded by a few admiring musicians and starts playing 'Over the Rainbow' on one of his famous guitars.

God, it sounds awful! Has the Wizard misplaced his magic? No, it's just a wand glitch: one guitar string, offensively flat, needs to be tightened. And now that it is, Paul can make terrific music, recalling his '50s hits with vocalist Mary Ford as well as his earlier and later jazz and country work. He plays 'Rainbow' largo, insinuating a delicate, wistful mood, then pricking it with a couple of puckish allusions to late-'50s guitar hits inspired by him: the monster chords of Link Wray's 'Rumble,' the seductive electronic weeping in Santo and Johnny's 'Sleep Walk.' Paul's fingers warm over the strings, coaxing, then hypnotizing them. The old master still has that supple touch.

In the popular mind Les Paul existed for a half-decade: the years 1950-54, when he and Ford enjoyed 16 top-ten hits, including 'How High the Moon' (#1 for nine weeks) and 'Vaya Con Dios' (#1 for 11). That would be enough, for anyone whose memory contained chips of Ford's silky stylings and 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 'Les Paul: The Legend and the Legacy' four-volume CD set (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 had built.

Yet to the rock generations that both learned from Paul and put his kind of music out of business, he was regarded more highly for his technical innovations. He pioneered recording on tape, creating dozens of layers of sound with an early reel-to-reel tape machines. He designed (but did not build) one of the first synthesizers. He devised the first eight-track tape recording system, which would not become generally accepted until 15 years later, with the Beatles' "White" album. And he invented the Gibson Les Paul, a guitar used in various models by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and loads of other Guitar-zans. Paul told interviewer Frank Beacham that a lot of people don't know he plays a guitar. 'They think I am one.' He is something more: a genius of a tinkerer, with machines and music'the Edison of pop.

He was born Lester Polsfuss (the family soon simplified the name to Polfus) in Waukesha, 18 miles west of Milwaukee. Encouraged by his mother, he learned piano, guitar and harmonica. His acquisitive intelligence led him into 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 would wire his guitar to radios stage right and left: voilÍ, stereo! 'If you can be an engineer and a musician,' he told David John Farinella for a biographical sketch in 'The Encyclopedia of Record Producers' (Billboard Books, 1999), 'that's very complementary.'

Billing himself as Rhubarb Red, Paul soon had a country-music act out of Chicago; he'd play harmonica and guitar and, between numbers, peddle rube humor. By the early '30s he was making $1000 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 I was hillbilly, and at night I 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 the bass player Ernie Newton and rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins (the older half-brother of Chet Atkins, with whom Paul would cut the 1995 album 'Chester and Lester'). They came east and, 64 years before Paul's gig at Iridium, there was a Les Paul Trio playing a New York club.

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