Les Paul at 100

Les Paul – one of the most inventive minds, wittiest performers, and skillful guitarists music has ever known – was born 100 years ago today. Les Paul is best known for the Gibson guitar that bears his name, the first mass marketable solid-body electric guitar. But there’s so much more to his legacy than that.

If you’re interested in pop, country, jazz, the origins of rock, the history of the music industry or music technology – basically, if you like contemporary music in any shape or form – you owe it to yourself to dig through his legacy. Start here:

Paul played with Nat King Cole, filling in for the great Oscar Moore, at the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 1944:

Paul was a versatile guitarist with a broad background from country to jazz. His impact is particularly apparent on the first wave of electric guitar country pickers like Chet Atkins. Atkins’ brother in fact was in Paul’s first trio, and Chet played with Paul many times from the ’70s through the end of his life (2001). They released an album together in 1976.

Paul’s first records were released in 1936 under his hillbilly alter-ego, “Rhubarb Red.”

The influence of jazz greats Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Art Tatum came out in the next phase of his career, under the name Les Paul. He had his own jazz trio in the late ’30s, then backed Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, and others as a member of the US Army during World War II for the Armed Forces Radio Network.

In the mid-40s Paul appeared on Bing Crosby’s radio show and backed Bing in the studio, including the hit “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” (Bing also helped finance Paul’s studio innovations). Paul paid for Django Reinhardt’s headstone (who died in 1953) and among his most prize possessions was Django’s Selmer Maccaferri acoustic guitar given to him by Reinhardt’s widow.

Les Paul and Mary Ford had 16 top-ten hits between 1950 and 1954, including five hits within the first nine months of that run: “Tennessee Waltz”, “Mockin’ Bird Hill”, “How High the Moon” (#1 for nine weeks), “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” and “Whispering”.

Part of their success was Paul’s A&R abilities. He could identify hit material and knew the perfect tempo and arrangement for it to catch listeners’ ears. Several of their hits were standards among musicians but unknown to the general public until Paul put his stamp on them. Their version of “How High the Moon” from 1951 is considered the first rock n roll hit by some historians:

From August 1952 to March 1953 they had five more top-ten hits; “My Baby’s Coming Home”, “Lady of Spain”, “Bye Bye Blues”, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” and “Vaya Con Dios” (#1 for 11 weeks).

Their last top ten was “Hummingbird” in 1955, though they continued to consistently have hits through the early 60s

Les Paul hosted a 15-minute radio program, The Les Paul Show, on NBC in 1950, many of which are archived here. From 1953-55 Paul and Ford had a syndicated TV show Les Paul & Mary Ford At Home.

Les Paul pioneered many recording technologies (including multi-track recording, tape delay and phasing effects) and techniques (close-miking). It’s no exaggeration to say studio breakthroughs of the ’60s like Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper’s would not have been made without Paul’s inventions and trailblazing use of technology.

I met Les Paul in 1999 and asked him if there’s any new guitarists he was interested in. His response: Jimi Hendrix!

In fact Les discovered Jimi in 1965 but Jimi left before Paul got his name or contact info. Read the story in Paul’s own words here.

Paul retired from live performance in 1965, but made a comeback in the late ’70s, at first playing college campuses. His 1988 concert “Les Paul & Friends” featured a who’s who of guitarist (David Gilmore, Eddie Van Halen, BB King, etc )

From the ’90s through his death in 2010 Paul played two sets at New York jazz club The Iridium every Monday night.

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