Thursday, August 13, 2009

R.I.P., Renaissance Man, All Around Good Guy

Given his advanced age (94), it’s no great surprise to hear of Les Paul’s passing earlier today, but it does mark the loss of a genuinely gifted and hard-working gentleman who bridged several musical generations, as well as the art and science of recording.

Les Paul was a truly unique guitarist who started out playing country music (under the nom de guitare Rhubarb Red) in the 1930s before really making his mark with a jazzy pop style in the ’40s and ’50s. He played with such innovation and fluidity that not only did he go on to become an outright star in the 1950s (even having a TV show with his wife/singing partner Mary Ford), but he also become a huge influence on many of the famed rock guitarists that followed a decade or two later. He was hip enough to keep up with musical trends and developments even late in his life, and he befriended many of the notable “guitar heroes” of successive generations, as well as continuing to show off his jazzy licks during weekly gigs in New York clubs into the 21st century.

Beyond his guitar playing, Les’ appeal and renown among musicians was also driven by the many technical inventions he was personally responsible for: from being one of the creators of the solid body electric guitar (and later the inspiration for the iconic Gibson Les Paul line of guitars) to his numerous innovations in multitrack recording and production techniques.

But technical, guitar geek accomplishments aside, anyone who appreciates good melody and impeccable phrasing can appreciate Les’ pop hallmarks like “How High the Moon,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” “Vaya Con Dios,” “Mockin' Bird Hill” and “Nola” to name but a few. Whether they know it or not, virtually anyone who has picked up and played an electric guitar in the last half-century owes something to Les Paul.

The above may seem somewhat old hat now that Boss/Roland et al have cheap and readily available stomp boxes that can do this, but when this clip was recored no company had anything to match the “Les Paulverizer.” Les always seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else on the technical developments. Eventually, he was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – undoubtedly the only one with membership cards to both of those!

• Les Paul has a huge catalog of recorded music. A good brief overview of his career-defining 1950’s era hits is The Very Best of Les Paul & Mary Ford.

• I highly recommend checking out a DVD of the documentary film about Les Paul, Chasing Sound, that came out a few years ago. Here’s a brief clip from it:

1 comment:

  1. Keith Richards’ quote about Les Paul succinctly sums it up: “All of us owe an unimaginable debt to his work and talent.”