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The man behind the electric guitar

Les Paul has seen it all in his 87 years

Les Paul
Les Paul in the 1940s. Now in his 80s, he still plays live every week.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- Maybe it's stretching the truth to say that Les Paul invented the electric guitar.

But not much.

Maybe it's embroidering the facts to say that with his innovations in multi-tracking and recording technology Les Paul created the modern studio recording.

But not much.

And maybe Les Paul himself embellishes a little bit when he tells his stories about playing with Django Reinhardt, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters, Chet Atkins, Al Di Meola -- almost any outstanding musician you want to name.

But why shouldn't he talk? After all, in his almost 87 years (his birthday is June 9), the man has been there, done that, and he has the records, concerts and memories to prove it.

The Les Paul file
Born: June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin

First instrument: Harmonica

Big break: With Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians. Paul had a regular spot during the big band's radio shows from 1938-1941. Incidentally, Waring was no slouch himself with appliances; he helped invent and market the Waring blender.

Played with: Waring, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dick Haymes, the Andrews Sisters, Helen Forrest, Chet Atkins, Al Di Meola

Hit songs: "It's Been a Long, Long Time" (with Crosby); "Brazil"; "Mockin' Bird Hill," "Vaya Con Dios" and "How High the Moon" (with Mary Ford)

Non-musical influences: Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, "all those great comedians. It wasn't just showmanship, but a whole way of handling your career."

Quote: "I learned a long time ago that one note can go a long way if it's the right one, and it will probably whip the guy with 20 notes."

The facts are that Les Paul did invent an electric guitar -- the eponymous Gibson Les Paul, the instrument of choice for rock 'n' roll axemen for the past 50 years; did create a host of innovations in studio recording; and did play with Reinhardt, Crosby, Sinatra et al.

In fact, Les Paul is still playing guitar, every week at a Manhattan club, where he rouses the crowd with his quicksilver runs and clever arrangements, even though arthritis has robbed him of much of his dexterity.

The secret, Paul says, is that his music is as much in his head as in his fingers.

"If you have only two fingers [to work with], you have to think, how will you play that chord?" he says in a phone interview from New York.

"So you think of how to replace that chord with several notes, and it gives the illusion of sounding like a chord."

'It seemed to come easy'

Les Paul's magic has always had as much to do with his brilliant mind as his guitar-playing prowess.

Born Lester Polfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Paul spent more time as a youngster taking apart electric appliances than practicing with a musical instrument.

"I had to build it, make it, and perfect it," Paul, nicknamed the "Wizard of Waukesha," says of his adventures with the electric guitar and other pieces. That left little time for practicing, he says, "but it seemed to come easy."

Just how easy is illustrated on the recently released "The Best of Les Paul: The Millennium Collection" (MCA/Decca), which features some of his outstanding sides from the 1940s playing with Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Dick Haymes, and his own Les Paul Trio.

By that era, Paul was already an in-demand sideman; indeed, Crosby featured the Les Paul Trio on several of his radio shows and helped finance Paul's engineering work.

His guitar style -- lightning-quick note picking, double-time rhythms and true-blue soul -- was heavily influenced by Reinhardt, but he credits Crosby with teaching him about timing, phrasing, and preparation.

"To work with him was one of the most enjoyable learning experiences," says Paul.

Crosby, he says, "didn't say it, he did it -- one time only. Unless he blew the lyrics, he did one take."

Les Paul Trio with Crosby
The Les Paul Trio (Paul is in front) with Bing Crosby (right). The group backed Crosby on a No. 1 song, "It's Been a Long, Long Time."  

Musicians had to be ready with the arrangement and have the song down, he adds, or they wouldn't be back.

Paul says he was present at the first meeting between Crosby and Sinatra in the early 1940s, and sat between the two for an Armed Forces Radio broadcast. Sinatra was the teen idol; Crosby, the established veteran.

"I'm looking at two of the most powerful people in the business," recalls Paul of the experience. And though Sinatra was riding a wave of popularity, "you knew he was nervous to be with the master, Bing," says Paul. "He idolized Bing."

'You had to use your head'

Paul was on the verge of his own breakthroughs. Despite being involved in a severe car accident in 1948 -- he asked the doctor to set his arm permanently in a guitar-playing position -- he continued his experiments in recording technology, multi-tracking several self-played guitar parts in an era when songs were recorded with minimal overdubbing. He invented the first eight-track tape recorder, linking and synchronizing eight machines together.

He had several huge hits ("How High the Moon" the best known) with his wife, Mary Ford, and helped the Gibson guitar company introduce the solid-body Les Paul Model in 1952. The same model, with small alterations, still drapes the frames of players from Keith Richards to Jeff Beck.

Paul says guitarists are far better now than when he was at his peak in the '50s, but he says that in an era when you can buy cheap electronic pedals to synthesize any sound, it's a mixed blessing.

Les Paul
Les Paul today -- with a Gibson Les Paul guitar, naturally.  

"In the old days we had no tools to work with," he says. "There was no way to see or hear what the other guy was doing. Now you go to any store and the answer is there."

He has the same beliefs when it comes to recording. It comes too easily nowadays, he says.

"A fellow can do everything on the [mixing] board," he says. Before, "you had to use your head, not your hands. You had to be better."

Mess up a song in the middle back then, and there was no stopping the tape -- or computer -- to punch in the correct notes. "You had to start at the beginning."

Paul's gift for inventiveness hasn't left him. The shows in New York are always live and unrehearsed, and he and his crew have to improvise their arrangements. "It's up the individual to get it," he says. "You have to anticipate."

But, he says, that kind of rhythm is music at its best. "That's what the public eats up," says Paul. "It's a great deal of fun. I see it every Monday that we play. It's never the same."


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