Friday, August 14, 2009

Les Is More

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Elvis gave rock and roll its swagger. The Beatles gave it pop. But Les Paul, dead at age 94, gave it its sound. Rolling Stone called him “the father of the electric guitar” and “the most influential rock guitarist ever” (Mark Kemp). MTV’s blog said “it’s impossible to overestimate the impact guitarist and inventor Les Paul…had on rock music.” Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards said, “without Les Paul, generations of flash little punks like us would be in jail or cleaning toilets” (Jay Lustig, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger).

As the inventor of the first solid-body electric guitar at a time when hollow-body guitars were the norm, Paul “revolutionized music and created rock ‘n’ roll as surely as Elvis Presley and the Beatles” (Nekesa Mumbi Moody, Associated Press release). That alone would have snared him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but in transforming “the way sound is recorded via innovations such as multi-tracking, reverb and close-miking” (Lustig), Paul also became an Inventors Hall of Fame inductee. Who knew?

While it wasn’t until 1952 that first issued a Les Paul solid-body guitar, Paul’s inclination for retooling the guitar dates back to 1929. Disappointed that he couldn’t get more sound from his guitar, a thirteen-year-old Paul placed a telephone receiver and later a phonograph needle in the guitar to amplify the sound (Moody), creating “a working prototype of the electric guitar” (Moody).

By 1936, he recorded as country act Rhubarb Red and appeared on records by blues singer Georgia White. He later formed a jazz trio and, in 1938, moved to New York to work with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians’ popular dance orchestra (Billboard). He also would work with Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, and the Andrews Sisters. He and his wife Mary Ford landed a slew of hits on the pop charts in the ‘50s.

In 1947, Paul released “Lover,” “the first commercially available multi-track recording” (Lustig). The song “changed the course of popular music as much as Elvis Presley’s ‘Sun Sessions’…[Paul] layered eight guitar tracks on top of each other: he would record one part on a wax disc, then record himself playing along with the earlier recording. He kept doing that until all eight parts were on one disc” (Lustig).

At his death, he was still doing a weekly gig at a New York jazz club, despite arthritis that forced him to reinvent, yet again, how to use his guitar.

As Paul said when inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “I have been credited with inventing a few things you guys are using…About the most I can say is, ‘Have fun with my toys.’” Speaking on behalf of rock and roll fans everywhere, your toys have given us great joy. Thank you, Les Paul.

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