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Friday, Aug. 14, 2009

Singing With Les Paul

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If there was one person I would have reserved for immortality, it would have been Les Paul. He died Thursday at age 94 and, just maybe, he was ready to go. I'm not so sure, he made so many adjustments to be able to play music for such a long time, that you kind of think, even at his age, it was a little too soon. I mean, everyone is familiar with the broken arm set at a proper guitar-playing angle, but I read that he had to relearn how to play after he developed arthritis, too. For the average person, this would not be the most difficult task, but he had to learn how to play like Les Paul all over again! He also had a history of heart problems going back to the 1980s, when he had multiple bypass surgery. At that point, most people start looking at retirement plans. Les decided a weekly gig made more sense instead and began a long string of brilliant weekly performances at Fat Tuesdays and Iridium that lasted to just about a month ago. It was at one of these performances that I was able to sing a couple Hank Williams' tunes with him. Here's how it happened.


I was living in Nashville in the mid '90s and went up to New York to visit my friend Tom. We were at a restaurant downtown and saw Milwaukee native, John Paris, walking by. I ran out to say hi and told him I had been thinking of catching Les, who I had never seen play, at Iridium. John offered to meet me there and introduce me - that sealed the deal. I showed up the next night early enough to be seated with a couple of Japanese tourists at one of the front tables. I sat back and waited. Les and his band, featuring a great woman pianist and a rhythm guitarist who looked like Jerry Orbach from "Law and Order," came out to thunderous applause and eased into a lightly swinging set. No John Paris in sight, but the night was young and Les was every bit as good as you would imagine him to be.

About a third of the way through the set, they're playing Bobby Troupe's "Route 66" when I hear a harmonica in the back of the room. As you all know, that kind of thing in Milwaukee usually means some drunk is playing out of key and it's time for the bouncer to earn his pay. In this case, it was John Paris, very much in tune, strolling up the aisle and eventually landing right up on stage with Les. "Les," he says, when the song ends, "we have a guy from your home town in the audience tonight." (I'm from Kenosha, where Rhubarb Red played his first gig, but close enough!)

This starts a little conversation between Les and myself. Most of it is Les Paul cracking wise and scoring comedy points in a gentle manner off the hapless tourist. But after a while, he asks what I do. I tell him I'm a songwriter trying my luck on music row. At that point he says he's having trouble hearing me, would I please join him on stage? I give my disposable camera to the Japanese tourists, along with the universal gesture for "Please get a good shot of me and Les Paul." Up on stage our conversation continues for a little longer and I'm invited to sing.

This is daunting, but doable - I've been on stages before, just not with the greatest electric guitar player in the world. I call out "Half As Much" which I had just performed at a Hank Williams tribute back in Nashville. Very few words to screw up and a beautiful melody. It goes over well and I make for the edge of the stage when he says, "How about another one?" I call, "Hey Good Looking" which I've been singing with my brother Mike all my life. I think I can sing it in my sleep. Not surprisingly, I have not stumped him or the band. This song also goes over and I thank him and return, a little stunned, to my seat. The Japanese fellows give me my camera and I watch the show from a cloud somewhere near the ceiling. The rest of it is, of course, brilliant and funny.

When it's over, Les stays and signs autographs for at least an hour. He signs for guys who look like your average metal fan from New Jersey - guys you picture with a lot of Kiss albums in their collections. Every one of them has a Les Paul guitar, some painted like targets, and you suspect, no - you know, they will never make anything like the kind of music Les Paul has made with their newly signed axes. He is patient, gracious and I stand in the corner and watch him. I'm not sure if I even talked to him again, but I get proof the whole thing wasn't a dream from Walgreen's a couple weeks later. A nice little snapshot of me on stage with The Wizard of Waukesha. For the life of me, I cannot find this picture - I haven't seen it in almost 10 years. I will be tearing through some old boxes this weekend in search of it. If I can't find it though, I have an image as clear as Kodachrome of that night - maybe they'll invent a printer that hooks up to your memory.

Les Paul was as good as our human genetic code currently allows people to be. He invented modern culture, or at least the part we call modern music, then he went to work every week playing for anyone who would listen. He allowed journeymen and fans a moment to bask in his company and kept going till he was ninety-four. That gives me an idea - when some people close to his stature die, they routinely name streets after them. Let's face it, Les Paul is more than a street, he is at the very least, a highway. I say, in honor of the ripe old age he lived to, we rename the section of Interstate 94 that runs from here to Waukesha, the Les Paul Freeway.