Les Paul's Homecoming
The Wizard of Waukesha Returns
In 1954 at a meeting of the Audio Engineering Society in New York, Les Paul proposed the ideal device for music listeners. He recalls his words as if the meeting had been held last week: “Ideally, it would be something you could carry in your pocket that had no moving parts and held every song you ever wanted to hear.”
On June 21 Les Paul, who celebrated his 93rd birthday a week earlier, returns to Milwaukee for a performance at the Pabst Theater in conjunction with an exhibition at Discovery World, “Les Paul’s House of Sound.” Nobody knows who played the first electric guitar, but Paul was among the pioneers who tinkered with the potential of amplification. Paul’s first stab at electrification involved jabbing the needle from a phonograph into the top of a Sears & Roebuck guitar and playing it through a radio receiver. By 1934 he built a solid body electric guitar, an early prototype of the famous Les Paul Gibson that went into production in the 1950s. And that wasn’t Paul’s only enduring accomplishment. Magnetic recording tape, developed in Nazi Germany, was first used in postwar America by Bing Crosby.
It was Paul, however, who glimpsed the new medium’s full potential as he hammered out the basic tools of modern recording from the workbench of his garage. “How High the Moon,” Paul’s 1951 hit with his wife, singer Mary Ford, marked a breakthrough in multitrack recording, employing tape to overlap dozens of guitar and vocal performances.
Although reel-to-reel tape machines have been replaced by digital audio workstations, the method of assembling recordings like an aural mosaic from bits of separately recorded sound remains the way most contemporary music is produced.
It’s been a long road from Paul’s public debut, at age 13, at downtown Milwaukee’s Schroeder Hotel (now the Hilton City Center) to the weekly residency he maintains nowadays at Midtown Manhattan’s Iridium Jazz Club. As a teenager he performed a hillbilly vaudeville act on guitar and harmonica; soon enough his fleet fingers began wrapping themselves around the more challenging progressions of jazz. By the 1940s he became an ace sessions man, performing with Nat “King” Cole and other popular jazz artists.
But the insights from his early shows at Wisconsin Lions Clubs and band shells proved indelible. Performing at a Kenosha theater, he grabbed a banana from a backstage
fruit bowl before strolling into the limelight. “The first thing I did
was peel the banana, toss out the banana and eat the peel. And then I
started to play. I had the audience!” he says, still amused at his
nerve as well as his digestive fortitude.
Even over a phone
call from his home in Mahwah, N.J., Paul’s personality shines. Like a
favorite uncle who serves unconventional opinions at Thanksgiving
dinner with a twinkle in his eye, he is a little zany at the edges. He
is also earnest and unassuming.
If the speaker at the other end of the line is an audience, he will be a trouper, an entertainer. He must have won over many peanut galleries as a teenager in Wisconsin. “The worst thing a musician can do is blame the audience,” he remarks. “If you’re not giving the audience what they want, it’s your fault. As a guitarist I’m telling the audience with my hands what I’m feeling. [I should be able] to make them laugh, make them cry. One time there was a woman in the audience who wasn’t responding. I stopped playing. I leaned over from the stage and said, ‘Are you all right?’” He wasn’t being sarcastic. Paul always wanted to tickle everyone’s ear, whether concert or on record. He wanted to please the public and be true to the sonic ideas carried in his head from a young age. It explains why the string of hit recordings made in the 1950s with Mary Ford were almost inevitably pitched in the key of relentless good cheer. By the time of those records, and the endearingly wacky network program he hosted with his wife, he had distilled elements of country and jazz into idiosyncratic, Sputnik-era pop sound of percolating melodies and caffeinated guitar riffs. It wasn’t rock ’n’ roll, but it pointed toward the technology that made rock, from the 1960s onward, possible.
Paul readily admits that he lost interest in the evolution of music even as he continued to develop new technology for creating music. The turning point for him was the bebop jazz of the late 1940s. Like the rock ’n’ roll of the following decade, postwar bebop musicians “were no longer playing the melody.”
Whether or not he dug their melodies, Paul shaped the development of many rock musicians through multitrack recording and, perhaps more importantly, the line of Les Paul Gibson guitars. It has been the ax of choice for guitar heroes, and has drawn musicians like Jimmy Page and Joe Perry to his gigs. Although Paul was not initially in the rock ’n’ roll camp, he seems entirely pleased by the impact he made and welcomes the contributions of guitarists such as Jeff Beck and Keith Richards on his recent CDs.
Why has the Les Paul Gibson won so many devoted fans from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? For starters, it’s as well crafted as the handiwork of Old World luthiers. Because of its aesthetics, a guitarist can feel the resonance through the contoured top while hugging the instrument to his body. The guitar is beautifully shaped and proportioned with the neck set into the body, not bolted on as with other models. The humbucking pickups give the Les Paul Gibson a deeper, wider, warmer sound than the trebly, piercing Fender Stratocasters that are its major rival at instrument stores. Pop psychologists who deemed the electric guitar a phallic symbol might have gotten it wrong. For Paul, a guitar should be “your psychiatrist, mistress, housewife and bartender.”
For him, the shapely Gibson is just like a woman. The solid body guitar bearing his signature represents the convergence of the two sides of Les Paul’s coin, the knock-’em dead entertainer and the basement inventor. From an early age Paul was tinkering like a young Thomas Edison, eager to discover what new things the machinery of the modern age could accomplish. As a teenager he built his own crystal radio set, through which he discovered hillbilly music on the “Grand Ole Opry.” He built his own PAsystem and electric guitars because “I had to be heard” in a world that was only getting noisier. He took apart his mother’s piano in the parlor to figure out how it worked.
Among younger generations, the inventive impulse that moved Paul has shifted into computer software. He’s not entirely happy with the influence this has had on music. “Digital technology bothers me,” he says. “It is tinny. It has no warmth. Neither did the player piano. Remember, digital is either on or off like the player piano.”
Paul has not retired from technology, however. Recently he was asked by the Gibson company to design a new line of amplifiers. Paul was happy to sign on. “There is no speaker made today that can faithfully reproduce the sound of a solid body electric guitar,” he explains. “You always lose the true sound value the guitar is capable of. It’s easy for a bad guitarist to sound good given the amplifiers of today.”
Any obstacle to reaching the sound he hears in his head has always frustrated and motivated the Wizard of Waukesha, whose goal has been to create a space where listener and musician can meet on common ground. “My whole life has been dedicated to chasing the sound,” he says. “All of my inventions have been chasing the sound.”
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