Friday, August 14, 2009

How High The Moon

On June 9,1915 in Waukesha, Wisconson, a red headed child, Lester Polsfuss was born. Lester started to play guitar at an early age and when he was 17, he quit school and began to perform professionally in St. Louis as Red Hot Red. He played in a number of country bands and became a regular recording musician. He changed his name to Les Paul, though, sometimes, Les would release novelty country songs under his alter ego, Rhubarb Red.

In the 30's, Lester formed The Les Paul Trio. They were a jazz trio and Jim Atkins, the brother of country guitar legend and innovator, Chet Atkins played bass. Les became dissatisfied with the performance of amplified acoustic guitars and began to experiment on his own. He invented his prototype, The Stick, which was actually a solid piece of wood with a microphone which was machined and strung like a guitar. This was essentially the first solid body electric guitar.
He dismantled an Epiphone accoustic and glued the "wings" on his stick to give it a more orthodox appearance.

But this was just the beginning. Les developed the design and made an instrument which is essentiually unchanged almost 70 years later, the classic Les Paul Guitar. The guitar became more refined as the technology of designing and winding pickups became more sophisticated.

Les became obsessed with what he could accomplish with this new instrument and pretty much invented much of the recording techniques we take for granted today.
He invented the concept of multi tracking, stacking instrument tracks to create the effect of a larger ensemble. He began by cutting acetate disks using a self designed recording rig employing a flywheel from a Cadillac Automobile. He would play the disc and record a second with the first as an accompaniment...and so on...
Part of his "sound" involved manipulating the speed of the guitar tracks and inventing the first real echo effect, which involved drilling a shaft into the face of the cliff his Los Angeles home was built on.

With the development of magnetic recording tape, he was able to use tape recorders in tandem and was able to take his sound on the road. He and his wife, vocalist Mary Ford, would perform live over a multitracked recording. Mary would start singing and then her voice would multiply iinto a tightly woven chorus. They created a new sleek, modern sound. Les' playing created a new sonic playground that would spawn generations of artists. Les and Mary had many hit records during the 50's and early 60's. I used this 1953 tape of How High The Moon to display the sound and effect they had at that time.

All this was accomplished inspite of the 1948 car accident in which he was seriously injured. His left elbow joint was destroyed. In the hospital, he was told that what ever position it was set in, it would remain for the rest of his life. His response was to tell the doctors to get his guitar.

Gibson manufactures the Les Paul Guitars and Les became involved in the recording industry in the 60's as an executive as well as his life long friend, Chet Atkins.
Les told the story of driving to New York with his son in 1965 and stopping at a roadhouse in New Jersey. His son went in to buy some beer and came out raving, "Dad, you gotta ssee these guys!" Les went into the bar and a group called Jimmy James and the Flames were burning the house down. This guy, Jimmy James was one of the best guitarists he had ever seen and a true showman, playing his guitar behind his head, with his teeth....
They had to get to NYC, but Les said that on the way back, they had to stop and sign this band. On the return trip, when they stopped at the bar, the manager said the band had been fired because they were too wild and he didn't know where they went.

The next time Les saw Jimmy James, he was on a plane and the fellow he was traveling with opened his briefcase and told him, "Man, you gotta check out this record. This guy is unbelievable!" Les looked at the record and his jaw dropped. There was Jimmy James, but he had changed his name to Jimi Hendrix and the record was Are You Experienced?

Hendrix always said that he idolized Les Paul. Jeff Beck claimed Les was his spiritual god father. In some ways, Beck is the logical extension of Paul...the humor, the obsession with trying to discover new tricks for the instrument...the legacy of Les Paul will live on in his guitar and the music he gave to the world and continues to inspire generations of musical explorers.

Les played every Monday night in New York for the last 35 years. He played at Fat Tuesdays on 2nd Avenue until the place closed and then moved uptown to the Irridium Club at Lincoln Center. I saw him quite few times and half the show was Les joking and playing jokes on the musicians who wanted to see him and play with him
If there is a heaven, Les Paul is going to be jamming on Mondays forever...
Les Paul, June 9, 1915...August 13, 2009.......


Engineer of Knowledge said...

Hello Microdot,
I heard about Les Paul on the ride home from work tonight on the radio. I am sad to hear of this legend passing on.

Made me feel a little bit older.

-Sepp said...

God bless Les!
And my 1985 Les Paul that was stolen back in '89!

microdot said...

I never opwned a Les Paul Guitar.
I had a few Fender Strats and swore by Fender Precision Basses.
My present bass guitar is a Yamaha from the early 80's which is set up has a Fender Precision/Jazz Hybrid.
It's a matter of feel, the weight and the scale of the fretboards of the fenders always felt just right in my hands.
There is a great video which I almost posted of Jeff beck and Les Paul playing together in the early 80's.
They are trading riffs back and forth and my point about Beck being the sort of god son of Paul is really apparent, at least to me.

Beck has a Strat with the cord held in place by a huge wad of duct tape...the running gag through the jam is Les Paul; trying to unplug Becks guitar while he is playing.
There is so much friendship and comaradery and humor in the 8 minute jam. It is priceless.

I would havew posted it, but the quality was so rotten and in the context of trying to really highlight what L:es Paul really had accomplished early on, it would have served no purpose.

mud_rake said...

I'm old enough to remember watching that B&W TV program with Les live, manipulating his guitar as a master.