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UPDATED: Les Paul, legendary guitarist and inventor, would be 95 today

Pioneered electric guitar and multitrack recording

Posted: August 13, 2009 10:50 a.m.
Updated: June 9, 2010 11:46 a.m.

The world's first eight-track recording machine, built by Ampex in the mid-1950s per Les Paul's specs, is among the artifacts in Paul's recording studio, where the inventor, pictured at left, and the author, pictured at right, taped an eight-hour interview in 1991. This revolutionary machine marked the dawn of modern recording. Without multitrac...

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Editor's note: Today, June 9, 2010, would have been Les Paul's 95th birthday.

Les Paul, acclaimed guitar player, entertainer and inventor, died Aug. 13, 2009 from complications of severe pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, N.Y., surrounded by family and loved ones. He was 94.

He had been receiving the best available treatment through this final battle and in keeping with his persona, he showed incredible strength, tenacity and courage. The family would like to express their heartfelt thanks for the thoughts and prayers from his dear friends and fans.

A public memorial was held Aug. 21, 2009 in Milwaukee at Discovery World, the science, technology and learning museum where the "Les Paul's House of Sound" exhibit opened in June 2008 and is one of the museum's most popular attractions. He was buried the same day in his hometown, Waukesha, Wisc., after a private family service. 

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Les Paul Foundation, 236 West 30th Street, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10001.

"It's a great loss for the world," said Scott Barbarino, manager of the Iridium Jazz Club in Manhattan, where Paul had played every Monday night since 1996, hours after Paul's death. "He crafted the sound and the way music is made today."

Early that afternoon Barbarino and the Iridium staff were preparing for news crews that were about to converge on the club. "It's a great loss for us. We're still getting over the shock. We've all hung out with him before and after this shows, spent a lot of quality time with him. He will be sorely missed."

Barbarino said Paul's last Iridium appearance was about seven weeks ago. 

"In the past he's been out once in a while because of illness and he always came back, but not this time," he said.

The following feature by this writer was first published in The Signal Sept. 30, 2005, as Paul was celebrating his 90th birthday and the release of what would be his final album:

Les Paul has an enormous family. The legendary godfather of guitar design, amplification and multitrack recording is celebrating his 90th birthday this year (it was actually June 9), so a bunch of his godchildren are paying homage to one of their greatest rock 'n' roll heroes all year long.

Among their tributes is the new "Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played," just out on Capitol - Paul's label for most of his career. It's a collection of 15 free-spirited performances by stars and superstars who at one point or another have recorded on a multi-track machine, or played a Gibson Les Paul guitar and found it to have as much musical character as its inventor has human.

It's Paul's first new album since RCA released "Chester & Lester," his 1977 Grammy-winning collaboration with fellow guitar icon Chet Atkins (the same sessions also produced its 1978 follow-up, "Guitar Monsters"). This time out, Paul's joined by an all-star cast of rock 'n' rollers who've learned a tricky lick or two from the master on the way to hitting the big time on their own.

Among them are Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Billy Gibbons, Buddy Guy, Joe Perry, Steve Miller, Keith Richards, Rick Derringer, Edgar Winter, Johnny Rzeznik, Richie Sambora, Neal Schon, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Sting, Joss Stone, Beth Hart and more.

The players let the riffs and solos rip while Paul kicks back, watching and listening like a proud papa. Advanced arthritis in his hands and fingers limits his ability to shred like his prodigious progeny, but he occasionally throws a well-timed riff into the hot space between their notes.

One exception is a new version of "Caravan," one of Paul's earliest hits, recorded in 1948 after a near-fatal car accident. His right arm was still in a cast but set in guitar-playing position, so in case the wing didn't heal right, he'd still be able to play. On the new version, Paul's guitar is up front, backed by session aces Gregg Matheison (keyboards), Abe Laboriel (bass), Daniel Moreno (percussion) and Kenny Aronoff (drums).

The other exception is a new take with the same rhythm section on the jazz standard "How High the Moon," a #1 hit for Paul and Ford in 1951; the new version features a snippet from the late 1940s-early 1950s "Les Paul and Mary Ford Radio Show" plus vocals by Ansou, along with some of Paul's signature lead guitar lines.

It's not a new idea for Paul to record a rock album with a bunch of his biggest music-making fans. He told me he was thinking about such a project way back in 1991, when I visited his home and studio in Mahwah, N. J., to interview him for the booklet I wrote to accompany Capitol's four-CD "Les Paul: The Legend & The Legacy" box set (now out of print, unfortunately).

The rock album idea made sense then - even more so now. In Paul's presence, or when they sit in onstage with him, multi-platinum superstars like Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck and Steve Miller act like goofy star-struck fans. I saw it happen in the mid-'90s on another trip to NYC, when Miller sat in with Paul and his trio at the Fat Tuesday's nightclub in Manhattan. It was just one of many such occasions. The two guitar stars had entirely too much fun together onstage, and the small but tightly packed audience loved every nanosecond.

Miller and Paul go back half a century to 1950, in fact, and Wisconsin, where Paul was born in Waukesha, near Milwaukee, Miller's home town. Miller's parents were friends with Paul and Mary Ford, Paul's second wife and equally legendary singing/recording partner. Miller's father, George, a pathologist, was best man at Les and Mary's wedding on Dec. 29, 1948. Paul had taught Steve his first chords a year earlier, when the youngster was 4.

This year, Miller paid tribute to his mentor by contributing a new version of "Fly Like an Eagle" to "Les Paul & Friends" - preceded by a priceless bit of tape of 5-year-old Steve from the Pauls' wedding night - and by writing the album's liner notes.

"He invented the tool that made The Beatles' recordings possible: multi-track recording," Miller wrote. "All the great modern guitarists - Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Jimmy Page, Link Wray, Duane Eddy, Eddie Van Halen, et al - have used and creatively profited from the music, stage craft, recording techniques, technological innovations and musical instruments created by Les."

Paul's rock album idea gestated more than a decade, until Capitol chief Phil Quartararo, one of the few music-savvy executives left in the record industry, hatched it after seeing one of Paul's Monday night shows at the Iridium Jazz Club, where the guitarist has held forth since 1996.

"Phil says, 'We have got to do something with you, Les - when was the last time you recorded?'" Paul recalled when we spoke on the phone last week. "I told him 'Chester & Lester.' Phil asked me if I'd like to go back in and record again, and I said, ';I'd love to!' He said, ';Okay, let's start with all the guests you bring up on the stage. Who do you have the most fun with?' I told him that even though (the Iridium) is a jazz place, the rockers are the most fun and seem to go over the best with the audiences.

"Then Phil asked, 'Do you want to do a rock album?' and I said, 'Yes!'" Paul continued. "And my manager is turning green, 'cause he didn't know where my mind was, but I was thinking about all these great players that at one time or another played a Les Paul."

Quartararo asked Paul to write up a hit list of his favorite players, then, with Paul's blessing, brought producers Bob Cutarella and Fran Cathcart in to the project to do the heavy lifting - making contacts, getting people into the studio, sending tapes overseas for overdubs and finally to Paul to add his licks.

"These are all dear such friends of mine, people I respect very highly because they are just such great players, and there's such of a variety of them," Paul said. "And they all went for the idea.

"We let (the guest artists) pick their own songs, do what they wished with their own arrangements, use their own people, whatever they wanted," Paul continued. "That makes this album very different. There was no one telling them what to do. They were free to do what they maybe couldn't do on their own albums, but could do on mine."

Among the numerous highlights on "Les Paul & Friends" is a pair of classic tracks written by Sam Cooke, with Cooke singing lead. Through a special deal with Allen Klein's ABKCO outfit, which controls the late superstar crooner's master recordings, Paul's producers built new backing tracks around Cooke's vocals. As icing on the cake, Jeff Beck played guitar on "(Ain't That) Good News" and Eric Clapton added lead to "Somebody Ease My Troublin' Mind." You've never heard a Cooke track sound this good.

Paul couldn't be happier with the completed "Les Paul & Friends" project. "The (musicians) all played great - I was very impressed with their playing and the variety of stuff," he said. "Everyone was very enthusiastic about the album, and so am I. The reviews have been great. I'm knocking on wood here!"

The Grammy-winning Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer, also recently inducted into the Inventors' Hall of Fame, has enjoyed several other tributes during his 90th year. On June 7, Capitol released an expanded version of its single-disc "Les Paul With Mary Ford: The Best of the Capitol Masters" collection.

On Paul's birthday June 9, Russ Cochran Publishing released "Les Paul In His Own Words," a limited edition autobiography with each numbered copy signed by the author. That night, Paul received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters' Hall of Fame.

Gibson, which is releasing 12 special editions of the Les Paul guitar this year, hosted the June 19 "All For Paul: Les Paul's 90th Birthday Salute" at Carnegie Hall. The star-studded celebration featured many of the world's greatest guitarists jamming and jiving with the master - a living icon who's also a master at self-deprecating humor.

"If you can imagine someone 90 years old playing with rock 'n' rollers - that's as ridiculous as you can get!" Paul laughed.

Copyright: The Signal

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