Mention "Les Paul" to any rock 'n' roller, and it's almost certain he or she'll think of the classic guitar manufactured by Gibson. If you ask them who Les Paul himself is, they're likely to give you a blank look, or mumble that he's some old guy lost in the sands of time.
Paul, the man who gave his name to the guitar back in the 1950s, is an old guy indeed, but he's not lost. You'll find the 93-year-old playing every Monday night at Iridium Jazz Club in New York, where he's had a standing gig since 1996. And this weekend, you'll find him in Cleveland, when he comes to town for a tribute concert in his honor at PlayhouseSquare's State Theatre. It caps the weeklong American Music Masters series, the annual event put on by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to honor a historically significant inductee (Paul was inducted in 1988). That concert will feature an array of performers in different genres:Êguitarists Jennifer Batten, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, James Burton, Dennis Coffey, Duane Eddy, Billy Gibbons, Lenny Kaye, Steve Lukather, Lonnie Mack, Richie Sambora and Slash; instrumental ensemble the Ventures; and vocalists Eric Carmen, Barbara Lynn, Katy Moffatt and Alannah Myles. Paul, of course, will be there too.
Rock Hall Vice President Jim Henke points out that having a living honoree adds a special dimension to the event, which they discovered last year when they honored Jerry Lee Lewis, following 11 programs honoring such long-gone artists as Woody Guthrie, Bessie Smith, Hank Williams, Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly.
"When we first began the American Music Masters series [in 1996], we didn't focus on living inductees," says Henke. "But then we did Jerry Lee Lewis last year, and he's alive. So we talked and we thought, 'Les Paul, he's a great innovator and he still plays every Monday, so why not?' There were a lot of ways to go with it."
Paul made a double-barreled contribution to popular music: as a musician and as a technological pocket-pusher. In addition to a string of pop hits from 1951-'56 with his late ex-wife Mary Ford and a strong jazz-based guitar technique, Paul pioneered a series of technical advances that literally changed the way music sounds.
Lenny Kaye, music historian, journalist and longtime guitarist with Patti Smith, is one of the devotees.
"I became aware of him through Les Paul guitars," he says. "And, being a historian, I went back to see how the music I loved came into being. It's a remarkable odyssey to see all of these streams that Les was not only a part of, but an initiator, not only inventing the solid body guitar or conceptualizing multi-track recording, but also the sound of his records, where you have this electronically processed guitar, speeded up, slowed down, echoed - all of the things that would go into making rock 'n' roll sound the way it sounds."
The sound of Scottie Moore's guitar on Elvis Presley's first recording, "That's All Right (Mama)," for example, can be traced back to Paul. "It wasn't that he merely amplified the guitar, which is what most people did in the '30s and '40s," explains Kaye. "It was an expansion of sound; he made the guitar sound different. Also what I find fascinating about Les is he's not only a great inventor and conceptualizer, but he's a great player. He's a consummate musician with great taste and musical knowledge, and doesn't let his fascination with electronics and gizmos cloud the beauty of his playing, his sense of humor, the emotion behind it, the choice of notes."
Henke echoes that sentiment.
"What interests me the most about him is that he's a great musician and artist, but he also has a very scientific mind," he says. "All these things he can come up with. He's got that kind of mind that when you're talking to him, he'll ask 'How does that work?'"
Paul himself has combined an engaging mix of modesty and pride in his 70-plus years of musical and technological achievements.
"I'm very excited and very happy about it," he says, referring to the tribute. "I don't know why I'm getting it. I know why they say I'm getting it. They said all kinds of nice things I don't believe. I'm grateful to all the guitar players that went out of their way to learn to play my things and apply it to their music. It's quite a compliment."
Paul returns the praise, citing players such as Jeff Beck and Chet Atkins, who absorbed lessons from him to create their own styles.
"Chet Atkins, he just played the records over and over," he says. "He mixed up my playing and Merle Travis' and came up with Chet Atkins. Jeff Beck can sit down and play identical to me, and he did. He sat in the dressing room and said, 'Remember this?' and played 'How High the Moon' exactly how I did, then went out onstage and played entirely different. But I could hear my licks in there, hear where he learned from. Richie Sambora is another fine guitar player, but there are so many. I love to hear what they are doing with new music, because all the things are a continuation of what I did. They took it and ran with it and developed all kinds of music."
Paul's numerous achievements will be the subject of a series of programs that include lectures, a film, a guitar clinic, a site sponsored by community partner the Cuyahoga County Public Library for friends and fans to share thoughts about Paul's legacy, and an all-day conference at co-sponsoring Case Western Reserve University on Saturday that'll include a Q&A session with Paul himself. You might ask him how a kid who dropped out of school in his early teens to go on the road playing music became known as a sound-engineering pioneer who developed techniques that formed the basis of contemporary recording for decades. Or how Cleveland played a pivotal role in his late-life career, after a 1980 experimental bypass operation at the Cleveland Clinic extended his life well beyond the expectancy of normal procedures at the time.
"I drew a line down a piece of paper and wrote all the things I enjoyed doing and things I didn't care about," says Paul. "It came down to: I liked playing in little joints and not be famous or try to impress anybody, just be another guitar player. So I found a little joint in a basement, and I played there with the idea that I wouldn't try to become a star. I've been through all that. You make an album that wins a Grammy [the 2005 tribute disc Les Paul and Friends: American Made World Played], all of a sudden you find you're not in this little beer joint escaping from fame." Tribute concert participant Jennifer Batten, who's played with Michael Jackson and Jeff Beck, says Paul's influence is there, whether modern-day players realize it or not.
"Some of the trickery and special effects he used in his recordings caught my ear," she says. "I've been intrigued by sounds that are out of the ordinary ever since."
At this weekend's concert, she'll play "Lover (When You're Near Me)," Paul's first multi-track recording from 1948. "The folks organizing the event know I've spent some time with modern effects and machines, and would be able to pull of this track by myself," she says. Lenny Kaye will showcase another side of Paul - his string of pop hits with ex-wife Ford.
"I love his work with Mary Ford because, in some ways, Les is a very masculine performer," he says. "I liked when he joined with Mary, and she created a feminine openness he was able to meld with. There's a certain emotional depth to their records that I find really beguiling. Happily, at the Hall of Fame concert, I'm going to play Les Paul to a couple of lovely Mary Fords - Alannah Myles and Katy Moffatt. We're doing some of my favorites, 'Vaya Con Dios,' 'The Tennessee Waltz' and 'How High the Moon.' I can't believe the scope of this. When I heard some of the guitar players who are going to be here, I got weak in the knees. It should be a great tribute to someone who, in many ways, is the musical icon of the 20th century."Ê
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