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Les Paul is 87 years old, but you wouldn’t know it to hear his jovial, optimistic voice on the phone. A jazz prodigy from Wisconsin, he was known as “the Wizard of Waukesha” even before he teamed up with vocalist (and wife) Mary Ford for a string of million-selling singles (“How High the Moon”, “Mockin’ Bird Hill”). The list of his sonic inventions is matched only by his fame as a jazz, country, and R&B guitarist. He also defined rock and roll style as early as 1948: after a serious car accident in which his right arm almost had to be amputated, he ordered doctors to set it at a permanent 90-degree angle so he could keep playing. He still plays two sets every Monday night at NYC’s Iridium Club, and he gave PopMatters 25 minutes of phone time recently.


(Les Paul’s latest release is The Best of Les Paul: 20th Century Masters, Universal, 2001.)



PopMatters:

Hello, Mr. Paul.



Les Paul:

Hello!



PM:

I’m talking to you from Madison, Wisconsin, and I was just in your hometown of Waukesha a couple of weeks ago.



LP:

Ah, Madison. How is Wisconsin these days?



PM:

It’s cold. Miserably cold and snowing.



LP:

[Laughs.]



PM:

Do you get the chance to get back out to Wisconsin much anymore, or not, really?



LP:

I was just out there. We’re putting in a museum in Waukesha, actually.



PM:

Oh, I heard about that. How’s that going?



LP:

It’ll be great. We’re really doing a good job on it.



PM:

Do you ever miss living here?



LP:

I miss your cheese…and your beer!



PM:

How are you feeling?



LP:

I feel great!



PM:

You’re still playing every week? What is that, Tuesdays?



LP:

I’m playing every Monday night. No one can find me anywhere else on Monday night than right at the club. Other people, they take time off—not me.



PM:

Let’s do a little history, for the readers who might not know much about you. You started off self-taught, right?



LP:

Right. I started off playing harmonica. There was a ditch-digger playing harmonica outside our home when I was eight, and I stared him right out of his harmonica. I started playing that, and made it rock. But a harmonica wasn’t enough. So I went to banjo and piano, and finally ended up with guitar.



PM:

Who is the greatest guitar player you ever heard in your life?



LP:

There have been a lot of great ones, but I think it would be Django Reinhardt and [Andres] Segovia.



PM:

Who were the biggest influences on you as a young guitarist?



LP:

Eddie Lang. He was the first one that I heard that really influenced me. My brother and I hitchhiked to Milwaukee, went to Orth’s Music Store there, and asked the guy who was really great, and he played Eddie Lang for us. We listened to him over and over and over. That was how I learned; there were no teachers back then, only music stores. Waukesha didn’t have anything like that. Now, another one to come along was Nick Lucas, and he was wonderful too. But Eddie Lang—he was the boy.



PM:

You started out doing hillbilly music in Chicago, right?



LP:

Right. I would open the station in the A.M. with my country bit. That was for money—I loved playing country music, and I still do, but that was for money. In the evening, I would get to play jazz, and soon I was playing with Roy Eldridge, Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman—all the great-greats. I learned early what that meant, too. I did that for about six months and then I stopped doing the country music and just focused on jazz; I went from $1000 a week down to $5 a week.



PM:

Wow.



LP:

Yeah, playing with Jackie Gleason and Count Basie was wonderful, but it was so much easier to do country. So I learned to split the difference and go right down the middle: country, jazz, pop, anything and everything. The blues, too. I just got asked to go out on a concert tour with Buddy Guy and Jeff Beck, but I turned ‘em down. I like their audiences a lot, love playing for them—but I’d rather play for my 210 people in the club, because then I can play what I want to play.



PM:

I’ve been listening to the CD they sent me, and it covers the time period when you were doing work as a guitarist, before you really started innovating in the studio. It seems like most people now know you for the things you invented rather than your guitar playing. Does that ever bother you?



LP:

Yeah, I see that sometimes and I can understand why. I mean, the one is the eyes of the beholder, you know what I mean? The studio stuff has “bigger feet,” that’s the phrase for it. As a guitar player, music is always changing, styles come and go. But the other stuff, that can never change. So people focus on that a lot more.



PM:

On the disc, you do some backing work for Bing Crosby. You two did a lot for each other’s careers, right?



LP:

Well, I think he did a whole lot more for me than I ever did for him.



PM:

Do you have any good Bing Crosby stories?



LP:

Hmmmm. I’ll tell you this one. Right near the end of his life, Bing called me from London. He says, “I just heard that hillbilly record you did with someone, and I’ve been just crackin’ up laughing.” That would be the record I made with Chet Atkins, the Chester and Lester album. He said, “I’m gonna fly back and we’re gonna do one like that, just you and me, just doing music and tellin’ some old stories.” And then just a couple days after that, he died, so we never got to do it.



PM:

There’s also a track on the disc where you’re backing the Andrews Sisters, and it seems to me that maybe that sound is what you were going for when you first started multitracking Mary Ford’s voice, those tight sorts of harmonies. Am I right about that?



LP:

Well, I don’t know. You know, no one’s ever asked me that. I mean, she was exposed to the Andrews Sisters, so it could be possible. I was playing with the Andrews Sisters all around, and Mary was a guitar hippie [did he mean “groupie”?], she used to follow me from one place to another, so she heard them all the time—but she was paying more attention to me than she was to them. When we started doing records, I would just say, “Mary, I want this in four-part harmony,” and she’d say, “I want you to tell me what you want and I’ll do it.” Mary was incredible. She was like a robot; she could do it the same way every time. So if there was anything to do with the Andrews Sisters, it was something by osmosis. But you might have something there. I never thought about it before.



PM:

I want to just run down some of your inventions for some of our readers who might not know just what you’ve accomplished. You were the first to use multitracking on a pop recording.



LP:

Right.



PM:

Were you the first to use multitrack recording for any reason?



LP:

If anyone else did, it wasn’t an eight-track. I invented the eight-track recorder. So yeah, before that there was no multitracking, there was no stereo.



PM:

And this was because of a recorder someone brought back after the war?



LP:

Right. There was a mono tape machine that people brought back from Luxembourg that used what we called a “paper tape.” This was Colonel [Dick] Ranger and Jack Mullins who brought this back and showed it to me. And I got Bing connected with it. So I was in the garage in L.A. and Bing pulled up in front and said “I’ve got something in the car for you.” I didn’t know what it was—I thought it was a load of Kraft cheese. But it was this recorder. He says, “Have fun,” and he turned around and left. I started playing around with it, and Mary was doing laundry and I came in yelling, “Mary, I got it! I got it! That stuff we’ve been trying to do on disc, I know how to do it on tape!” That was 1949, and it was the first sound-on-sound. Multitracking came later—I just happened to pick eight for the number of tracks.



PM:

You invented the first solid-body electric guitar.



LP:

Yes.



PM:

The first bass guitar.



LP:

Yes.



PM:

You invented the use of echo.



LP:

Yes.



PM:

Delay.



LP:

Yes.



PM:

Reverb.



LP:

Yes.



PM:

What am I leaving out?



LP:

Phasing!



PM:

[Laughs.] Sorry for laughing, but man, that’s a lot of things you’re responsible for.



LP:

I laugh about that myself sometimes.



PM:

Are you shocked when you think about all this stuff you invented?



LP:

Sometimes, but nobody listens. Sometimes I’m listening to the radio and I hear something and I say, “Hey, honey! Did you hear that? I invented that!” But no one’s listening. [Laughs.]



PM:

I imagine that many guitar players have made the pilgrimage down to the club to try to play with the master. Is there anyone who can come close to sounding like you?



LP:

There have been some pretty good attempts at it. The closest is Jeff Beck. He’s as good as anybody.



PM:

Who are you impressed with among contemporary guitar players?



LP:

There are a lot of great guitar players out there, but not many of them have what it takes to be truly great. You have to have rhythm, which you can’t purchase in a store. You have to have an ear for music, which you can’t buy. You have to have soul, which you can’t buy. These are things that you’re gifted with. Another is perseverance, and another is a sense of humor. You see, when you play with your hands, you have to think the whole audience is made of foreigners. You have to raise your sight, lower your sight, and find where your audience is. Then, of course, you get your standing ovation!



PM:

[Laughing.] Well, thank you for your time. Good luck with the museum.



LP:

Oh, it’s gonna be great!

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