Les Paul & The Last Word

Les Paul was born 100 years ago today. Even if you do not remember or can not name any of his couple dozen hit songs, if you are listening to music at this moment, you are listening to his influence, no matter what style of music you have on. He invented multi-track recording in the 1940s, for instance, so unless you are listening to a monaural recording on an acetate disc from that era, you are listening to a multi-track recording.

It is true that multi-track recording is one of those things that someone was going to invent out of necessity, but Les Paul is the man who responded to that necessity.

He also invented the solid-body electric guitar and the amplification system for it, so if you are listening to an electric guitar right now, you are listening to Les Paul’s influence. And you might even be listening to a Gibson Les Paul model guitar—Gibson started selling a model based on his design in the early 1950s—Eric Clapton played a Les Paul while he was with Cream. “Sunshine of Your Love?” That’s a Les Paul.

My musician friends can explain the details of why they prefer the sound produced by using this or that gauge versus this or that thingamajig. It is all hoozits to my limited knowledge. Their appreciation of Les Paul is universal; after all, he was the ultimate garage tinkerer and studio builder, characteristics they all share. I have helped break down sets after watching friends perform and found myself fascinated by the amount of gear, the quantity of wires, and the memorized knowledge of things like “this wire only goes to this amp for these songs.” (At least that is what it always sounds like to my novice ears.) But I have the same knowledge about my pens and pencils. At times in my life, certain pens were for comedy and others for journalism; you know, now that I have typed that out loud, I realize that this indicates that I am less like a typical gear-head musician than a nut.

He was an inventor, but Les Paul also understood the poetry underlying all of the gear. Why does an electric guitar look like it does, with curves? As you may know, an electric instrument does not need to look like anything; it can be a fretboard and little else. In fact, his first model was just that, a 4″ x 4″ piece of pine with a strip of railroad steel serving as the guitar body. It was called the “Log.” (See photo at the top.) He split a hollow-body acoustic in half and attached those halves to either side to make the thing look like a guitar, with f-holes and all. But, he told the New York Times a year before he died, the guitar also has curves because he wanted to emulate the curves of a woman. He made the universal hand gesture for curves while saying this. He told this story in his video obituary.

Obituaries of famous people are prepared in advance and amended and emended as the life continues. The New York Times, a major international publication, often consults with the famous person while preparing the obit and thus sometimes get a unique last quote for the thing. For the last decade, the Times has requested and recorded final interviews with a couple dozen famous individuals, with the only stipulation that the video be released for the first time with the obituary. The theme of the interview? “How would you like to be remembered?” The humorist Art Buchwald’s is typically blunt and funny. He opens with, “Hi. I’m Art Buchwald and I just died.”

In 2008, a year before Les Paul died, the Times interviewed him before a gig at the Iridium Club in Manhattan. He was 93 at the time and was still performing each Monday night at the club. He never retired. Thus he had an 80-year-long career in show business. So, still active and lively, he participated in a video biography that finally made its appearance on August 12, 2009, the day he died.

In the interview, the then-93-year-old reveals a secret for keeping a contended life, keeping an even keel: He plays guitar whenever he can, whether he feels good or bad, and remembers that it is all a gift:

When you’re my age, you know that the end is in sight. How do you handle it? You live for the moment. The past is gone, and the future isn’t here yet, and you ain’t gonna change it no matter what you think. And so the most obvious thing to do is right now.

Here is that interview in its entirety. Ninety years of wisdom in 15 minutes:

In 1951, Les Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, had a number one hit with “How High the Moon?” Ford’s voice is multi-tracked. Enjoy:

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  1. loisajay · June 9, 2015

    I do love when you type out loud.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. katespencer17 · June 9, 2015

    Uncanny. For some reason, I had never heard of Les Paul, or Mary Ford until a couple of hours ago when I heard their recording of ‘Vaya con Dios’ . Your blog post made it so much more meaningful. Such an interesting legend in the music industry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · June 13, 2015

      I am grateful that this blog had the opportunity to contribute that. Thank you for sending that comment to me.


  3. Damien Riley · June 11, 2015

    So few kids these days understand who he was to electric guitar and recording.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · June 13, 2015

      It’s cool to see your comment with the one above! Thanks, Mr. Riley.


  4. Pingback: Today in History: June 9 | The Gad About Town

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