Unreal Nature

August 31, 2009

Lost in the Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:02 am

Les Paul died on August 13th.  A long comment to his obituary in The Economist (by Sam Ash) includes this:

… He was always a gentle soul, very quiet, but he always had a joke or funny line waiting to pop out of his mouth. The last time I spent any real time with him was at a private photo shoot we did together last year at Iridium, the club he played every Monday night until the day he died. I had a rare opportunity to share a stage with him and discuss his favorite guitar, his Les Paul Custom Ebony with “Les Paul Recording” electronics, another one of his many inventions. What almost made me fall over in my chair was that the guitar was a “Factory Second” as I saw stamped on the back of the headstock. It was like seeing Henry Ford driving an Edsel. When I asked about it, he just shrugged it off: “Hey, it’s a good guitar!” After the shoot was over and we had said our goodbyes, he just went quietly back to the stage and started to play guitar all by himself, lost in the music and memories I guess. He was playing “How High the Moon” as I left.

The Economist piece is good. Here it is in its entirety:

Until about two months ago a short, slightly bent 93-year-old man would take to the stage every Monday in a New York nightclub. He would place a guitar bearing his name under a right arm permanently set at a right angle, touch the strings with the few working fingers of his arthritic hands and launch into some of the greatest guitar riffs of all time. Few musicians have careers lasting more than eight decades. Even fewer can boast two huge accomplishments. Les Paul, who died last week, invented both the electric guitar and multi-track recording, inventions that changed the sound and production of rock music.

Lester Polsfuss was born in a small town in Wisconsin in 1915. He taught himself the harmonica, banjo and guitar, sometimes building the instruments out of materials he found. He made his first open-bodied electric guitar by attaching a pickup from an old Victrola. Soon he changed his name to Les Paul and began playing in local hillbilly music bands.

Before long Mr Paul was performing with the most elegant bands on radio and in posh nightclubs. In the 1940s he played and recorded with all the big names of the era including Nat King Cole, Rudy Valée and Kate Smith. Dissatisfied with the sound of amplified guitars, he used a piece of railway sleeper to make a solid base for the strings and pickups, producing in this way a unique tone. The “log”, as he called it, was the first solid-body electric guitar.

After the war he started experimenting with recording techniques, altering the pitch and resonance of notes. After some 500 tries, he produced a recording that combined two versions he had played of “Lover”, a song that topped the charts in 1948. Shortly afterwards he was injured in a car crash and doctors could do nothing with his crushed right arm except lock it in one position. Without hesitation he told them to set it in a position to play the guitar.

A year earlier he had teamed up with Mary Ford, a country singer whom he later married. Sculpting her voice like clay, Mr Paul built layers of sound into one combination. Soon he was creating 24-track recordings, including such hits as “How High the Moon” and “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise”.

Dark days followed. For a time there were no musical geniuses to put his inventions to their best use. Mr Paul and Ms Ford were trapped in a 1950s television show in which they had to appear in suits and pearls on the patio of a suburban ranch house breaking into song by the barbecue grill. By the mid-1960s, his marriage over, Mr Paul felt music had passed him by. He turned to refining his recording technology. Also, at the request of the Gibson guitar company, he produced his signature Les Paul model, still the Cadillac of guitars.

But then a new generation of musicians discovered him and his pioneering work for rock music. Pilgrimages to honour the father of the electric guitar by stars such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney made him famous again. He started playing in small clubs once more. A 2005 album, made with the help of admirers, including Sting, won two Grammies. Not at all a bad tribute for his 90th birthday.



The bit, “trapped in a 1950s television show in which they had to appear in suits and pearls on the patio of a suburban ranch house breaking into song by the barbecue grill”, made me laugh. How many millions are likewise trapped in their real life.

If you want more details about Paul, here is his Wikipedia page.



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