september 2009

Les Paul: The Music
It was always about the music

By David McGee

Les Paul & Mary Ford, 'How High the Moon'
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It seemed Les Paul would go on forever, holding forth on Monday nights at Iridium in Times Square, popping up now and again at other's shows to lend an elegantly crafted, precision lick or two, always available and accessible to press and public alike and quick with a humorous but revealing anecdote about one giant or another whose path he had crossed in a professional career that began in the late '20s. But on August 13, Paul—born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, WI, and known variously as "Red Hot Red" and "Rhubarb Red" before he adopted Les Paul as his stage name—died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, NY. He is survived by four children and his companion, Arlene Palmer.

An inveterate tinkerer, Paul began building his own recording and musical equipment because, as he said on numerous occasions, "no one else was building what I needed." At age eight he devised a neck-worn harmonica holder with a design still in production today. But he changed the entire course of recording history in developing a multitrack recording process and then putting it into practice after Ampex presented him the second Model 200 reel-to-reel audio tape recorder, developed after WWII by Jack Mullin. He modified the 200 with an additional playback head positioned to allow him to play along with his previously recorded track and then mix the two together on a new track, but the process also erased the original recording. Ampex subsequently developed two- and three-track recorders that allowed recording on multiple tracks on one tape while preserving the original tracks, and thus positioned the Model 200 as the centerpiece of the professional recording industry across all mediums—records, TV and radio. Paul later commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track tape recorder as well. The first professional multitracked recording released to the public was Paul's 1948 Capitol single, "Lover (When You're Near Me)," which featured Paul playing eight different parts on the guitar, some recorded at half speed so they sounded twice as fast when played back at normal speed for the master recording. On record he also demonstrated the battalion of forward-thinking techniques he had at his command with multiple recording: "delay, echo, reverb, phasing, flanging, sped-up sounds, muted picking, and everything else," as he put it. An entire industry—that of professional recording—honors Paul every time a new session begins. His technological innovations—not only multitrack recording on disc, the solidbody guitar and eight-track tape recording, but also prototypical synthesizers and signal processors—revolutionized the manner in which records are made to such a degree that to talk of studio technology at all is to discuss the pre-Paul era and the post-Paul era.

The same year Paul cut his first disc multiples he also designed solid-body electric guitar ("The Log," as he called it) with two pickups. Over the next few years he continued modifying and redesigning solid bodies, until, in 1952, he signed a deal with Gibson for production of the Gibson Les Paul model, or the Les Paul Standard, with a gold top, two single-coil pickups, and what was called a "trapeze" tailpiece for mounting the strings, a technique critical to Paul's unique sound, one he steadfastly refused to dissect in public, save for describing it as "that big, fat, round, ballsy sound with the bright high end-nobody else has it."

Les Paul and Chet Atkins, 'Birth of the Blues'
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The legacy of the Gibson Les Paul is the subject of a separate article in this issue that enumerates some of the important guitarist of the past half-century-plus whose sound and style was defined by Paul's instrument. One of those was one of the architects of rock 'n' roll guitar, Carl Perkins, who essentially had a life altering experience when he heard Les Paul and Mary Ford's first singles, including "Lover" and the timeless classic from 1951, "How High the Moon." Perkins had always thought Paul had been playing all those lines himself, and had taught himself to play in a similarly dexterous fashion by listening to Paul's recordings on radio and following along. Only later, when he actually purchased his first Gibson Les Paul shortly before signing with Sun Records in 1954, did he learn about the multitracking process. To this reporter Perkins said the moment he plugged in his $600 gold-top Les Paul, "I found my sound. When you changed tones on [other guitars], on a lot of them tone controls the variation was very minute. Didn't really do a lot. That guitar, when you went from one pickup to the other, its treble was treble, and you could get in between and you could get a sound of your own, or a tone of your own. That's what made 'em so popular; that pickup allowed for different tones and different qualities of tone, and individual guitar players got their identities with the sound from that guitar."

All of this innovation was in service to the music, though, and Les Paul did indeed leave behind an exceptional legacy on that front too, both as a solo artist and bandleader, and most famously as partner to (on stage and off—they were married) Mary Ford, a dominant hitmaking duo in the 1950. From their first release, 1948's "Lover," through their final Top 40 single, 1961's "Jura (I Swear I Love You)," Les Paul and Mary Ford made some of the liveliest, most inventive pop records of their time, and were rewarded with public acclaim comparable to that of the most popular recording artists of the era.

Les Paul & Mary Ford, 'Alabamy Bouond/Darktown Strutters Ball,' from a series of five-minute shorts Les and Mary appeared in for Listerine in 1953.
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Ford (born Colleen Summers, she was rechristened by Paul when she joined the Trio in 1949, the same year she married the guitarist) sang in a pleasant if limited alto soprano voice; when multitracked, she sounded like the Andrew Sisters. Behind her, often abetted by tape trickery, Paul worked out some astonishing harmonic runs, some of them with music-box delicacy and poignancy, and unusual chord progressions. His smooth touch, flawless command and dexterous picking have elevated him to a status among guitarists nearly as legendary as his standing among electronics freaks.

Initially inspired by country blues artists DeFord Bailey and Sonny Terry, Paul developed a signature sound by osmosis: he listened to a wide variety of music and absorbed the most intriguing elements he encountered along the way: his single-string runs bring to mind those of Lonnie Johnson; his chordings and sustained phrasings evoke the style of Charlie Christian; an occasional thumb-picked bass line and finger-picked lead suggest a Merle Travis influence. Working steadily on the road in the '30s and '40s provided him with ample opportunity to expand his own vocabulary with ideas inspired by other musicians who crossed his path without ever achieving fame on their own. In short, his style is so eclectic that it would be foolhardy to describe him as the child of any single instrumentalist or two—blues, country and western, jazz, and pop voicings are all evident in his playing.

thumbnailAs for the music, the Capitol years are superbly documented on a four-CD box set, Les Paul: The Legend & The Legacy (out of print, but available from Amazon dealers), which includes an entire CD of previously unreleased masters, 34 in all, as well as track-by-track liner commentary by Paul himself (buttressed by a first-rate biographical sketch courtesy Stephen K. Peeples), and excerpts from the duo's radio shows and commercial spots. All of the Capitol hits are here (22 Top Forty singles between 1950 and 1957), including two Number Ones, "How High the Moon" (1951) and "Vaya Con Dios" (1953). Fans on a tighter budget will find The Best of the Capitol Masters: 90th Birthday Edition a good bang for the buck with 23 tracks from the box set.

The Fabulous Les Paul and Mary Ford and the 21-track The Columbia Singles Collection are top-notch surveys of the Columbia years, when the hits ended save for two more visits to the Top Forty. Hits or no, Paul and Ford made wonderful records during this time. The former's choices as a soloist are often as unexpected as they are exhilarating, and Ford's voice has become a husky, mesmerizing wonder of romantic yearning—check out "All I Need Is You" for an almost perfect mating of Paul's shimmering effect and Ford's winsome affect; on the other hand, the hard-edged pop-country of "It's Too Late," bolstered by Paul's straight-ahead bluesy soloing, is cut from Patsy Cline cloth. These two collections do justice to a productive time in the duo's career, when the quality of their work together often matched what they had done on Capitol, even if the sales figures indicated otherwise—a triumph of aesthetics over commerce.

thumbnailWhen he formed his first Les Paul Trio in 1936, Paul hired Ernie Newton as his bass player and as rhythm guitarist and as vocalist he brought in a fellow named Jim Atkins, whose brother Chet was a young guitarist on his way to making a name for himself as a picker. MCA's The Complete Decca Trios-Plus fills in some the "lost" years in Paul's recording history pre-Mary Ford, from 1936 to 1947. Its 50 songs find Paul solo, with his Trio, with his Orchestra, with the Delta Rhythm Boys, accompanying Bing Crosby (a killer version of "It's Been a Long, Long Time"), Georgia White, Dick Haymes, Helen Forrest and as part of Terry Shand & His Orchestra. In any configuration in which he found himself, Paul's music is an unadorned delight—as in free of any multitracking trickery—with the Trio meshing beautifully on a range of tunes ranging from the melancholy (Helen Forrest's "Everybod Knew But Me") to the jubilant (a feisty attack on Leon McAuliff's "Steel Guitar Rag"). All in all the disc underscores Paul's mastery of technique and mood, lest anyone think his fanciful recordings in the '50s were more a showcase for the impish technocrat than for the player with heart. Put this one on, add a good bottle of wine and some good friends, and you have an evening.

In 1976, 40 years after his brother joined up with Paul, Chet Atkins came around to join Les (the two had jammed together frequently over the years as their friendship grew) in laying down some licks for posterity on Chester and Lester, an engaging and invigorating super session—no hype here—that feels improvised from first note to last, two old friends sitting around doing what they do best and about as well as any two people have ever done it. Now available on CD with four previously unreleased bonus tracks, this genial in-studio pairing of electric guitar titans remains a most ingratiating interlude, as much a pleasure for the listener as it sounds like it was for the titular artists, whose histories and achievements are intertwined and deep. Working with a sharp ensemble of Nashville studio stalwarts (including Larrie Londin on drums), Atkins and Paul turn a clutch of standards from the Great American Songbook into a scintillating conversation in song. Sometimes they play it straight, the better to enhance the beauty of great melodies such as those of "Moonglow/Theme from 'Picnic'" and "It Had To Be You." Being witty fellows, too, Atkins and Paul inject some whimsy into the proceedings, as when a dreamy workout on the Sammy Cahn-Jule Styne evergreen, "It's Been A Long, Long Time," suddenly breaks into a spirited, speed-picked dialogue before settling back into its romantic mode. Near the end of a swaying rendition of "Out of Nowhere," Paul pays homage to his beloved former partner by piping up with, "Sounds good, Mary!" to which Atkins responds, "Why thank you, honey!" Of the four bonus tracks, two are alternate versions of songs on the original album, but two are knockout numbers that didn't make the final cut. "The World Is Waiting For the Sunrise" is a brisk, melodious affair with a slight country swing flavor and wonderful interplay up and down the neck as the guitarists one-up each other's flourishes, whereas the timeless "You Brought A New Kind of Love" is a striking mid-tempo shuffle that finds the axemen trading variations on the melodic theme. Precisely because it's so unassuming, and the virtuosity so matter of fact, Chester & Lester sneaks up on you, and then doesn't let go.

An odd entry in the Paul catalogue returns to the shelves every year at Christmas time. Christmas with Les Paul/Mary Ford and Ruth Welcome is a discount package featuring Paul and Ford on one side performing carols recorded in 1951, only one of which ("Jingle Bells") is on the Capitol box set. Completists or fans of this music will want to check out the duo's engaging renditions of some holiday classics. Side two is devoted totally to zither instrumentals by German-born Ruth Welcome, an artist who recorded 18 albums for Capitol but is no so obscure she doesn't even rate a Wikipedia entry, and a Google search reveals little more than eBay sellers offering her albums for auction. But there is this...

Ruth Welcome plays 'Stardust' on the zither
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Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024