Les Paul keeps rocking at age 90

Friday, October 14, 2005
Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Peter Townsend, Jimmy Page and other greats all learned their art at the feet of this legendary guitar innovator.

NEW YORK -- Take it from Peter Frampton. Or from Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Peter Townsend or Jimmy Page -- they all owe a debt to Les Paul, father of the electric guitar.

"They all mention Les as an inspiration because of [his] early records, which were jaw-dropping when you first heard them as a novice guitarist," says Frampton, who recalls learning licks off of Paul's records as a 9-year-old in England. "We revere him, but Les is so genuine and down-to-earth that he's still one of the lads."

At age 90, the man who developed the solid-body electric guitar has finally released his first rock album, "Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played" -- which is remarkable considering that he is a longtime inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He appears with Frampton, Beck, Clapton, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora and other guitar legends on the new CD.

"They're not only my friends, but they're great players," Paul said. "I never stop being amazed by all the different ways of playing the guitar and making it deliver a message."

This is Paul's first new recording since the mid-1970s, when he released two albums with the legendary country guitarist Chet Atkins, including "Chester & Lester," which won a Grammy for best country instrumental album.

Born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915, to a German immigrant family in Waukesha, Wis., Paul has done more than perhaps any other individual to create the tools and techniques that shaped the past 60 years of pop music -- from Alvin and the Chipmunks' sped-up tapes to ZZ Top's southern rock powered by Gibson's Les Paul-model guitars.

Paul built one of the first prototypes for the solid-body electric guitar in 1941. After repeated rejections, Gibson finally began mass-producing a guitar based on Paul's design in 1952, and the electric guitar went on to become the lead instrument in rock 'n' roll.

Paul also developed many of the techniques such as multi-tracking and echo delay that made possible such classic rock albums as the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Only Paul could have brought together the disparate all-star lineup of jazz and rock guitarists who turned up on Father's Day at Carnegie Hall for a JVC Jazz Festival 90th birthday tribute concert. More than a dozen guitarists -- from jazz veterans Bucky Pizzarelli and Pat Martino to rockers Frampton and Steve Miller -- performed separately and then crowded the stage to join Paul for a rollicking jam session on "Let the Good Times Roll."

Jazz guitarists revere Paul as one of the first to make the electric guitar a lead solo instrument. In the 1940s, Paul earned renown in jazz circles for keeping up with the lightning-fast runs of pianist Art Tatum in jam sessions and giving a memorable performance with pianist Nat "King" Cole at the first Jazz At The Philharmonic concert.

Even though the rock revolution led Paul to retire from public performing in the mid-1960s, he was never disparaging to the upstart younger guitarists. Jimi Hendrix was among the many rock stars who would call Paul for tips.

His numerous other accomplishments include designing the first eight-track tape recorder for Ampex and an early-model synthesizer to create sound effects, which he called the Les Paulverizer.

In May, Paul was inducted into the National Inventors' Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, earning a spot alongside Thomas A. Edison and the Wright Brothers.

"The thing about Les that's different from everybody else is that he has such generosity, respect and encouragement for all musicians," says Miller, 61. "He never discriminated against anyone if they played loud horrible buzztone guitar or the best jazz guitar in the world, he treated everybody equally."

None of the musicians on the new record has a closer relationship to Paul than Miller, who prefaces "Fly Like An Eagle" with a homemade tape recording of the guitarist encouraging him to sing when he was a young boy in Milwaukee. Miller's father was the best man at Paul's wedding to singer Mary Ford.

"Les taught me my first chords on guitar when I was about 4 1/2 ... and he's been my mentor for my entire life," said Miller. "I was light years ahead of everybody else because I was right there when this guy was inventing most of the stuff."

On the album, Paul plays lead guitar on only one track. On the others, he listened to the lead and solo tracks recorded by the guest stars, then recorded his own riffs, trills and other accompaniments at his new state-of-the-art home studio.

"What surprised me the most was Les' continuing desire to innovate and learn new things," said Fran Cathcart, who co-produced the CD. "He learned a whole new set of songs in a whole different style than he's ever been used to and actually used different guitar tones than he's ever used before."

Paul acknowledges that he can no longer play the way he did at his peak. Arthritis has gnarled his fingers and he has needed a hearing aid since a friend playfully cuffed his ear and broke an eardrum back in 1970. He has taken to heart the advice given to him by a nurse who showed up shortly after he started playing at New York's Iridium Jazz Club in 1996.

"She said, 'Don't make the mistake of trying to play like you did when you were a kid, you're never going to do it, so play like you play now,"' Paul remembers. "All these guys ... play so fast, but the guy that wins is the guy that plays the melody and reaches the heart."

But what keeps Paul going more than anything else are his Monday night gigs at the Iridium, where Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan might turn up in the audience and legends like Tony Bennett, Keith Richards or Jeff Beck might show up on stage.

After undergoing triple-bypass surgery in 1980, Paul came out of retirement on the advice of a doctor who recommended that he go back to work.

"I wouldn't miss Monday for anything," Paul said. "It gives you a reason to get out of bed other than to go to the bathroom.

"And then you don't look at 90 so bad ... I'm doing just fine, playing and having fun down at the club, just being with my friends and making new friends. ... Naturally I feel like the end of the road is in sight, but you got to keep the faith, work hard and enjoy what you're doing. I'm blessed to be here. I'm one of the lucky ones."

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