Les Paul is a renowned musician and technical innovator whose distinctive style has changed the shape and sound of popular music. The legendary guitarist and Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee spoke with VOA's Kane Farabaugh before one of his regular performances at a small jazz club in New York City, where, even at the age of 92, he still performs each week.
It's Monday night in Midtown Manhattan, and as usual, the Iridium Jazz Club is packing in the crowds. Backstage, the arthritic hands of an elderly musician tune a guitar before the evening performance.
The man behind the guitar was born Lester Polfuss, but is better known as Les Paul.
Born in the small midwestern town of Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Les Paul showed an early interest in musical instruments and electronic devices. As a young boy, he experimented with sound waves and even created his own radio.
He would listen to variety shows on that radio broadcast from Chicago and as far away as Pittsburgh. Those broadcasts inspired him to seek a career on the road as a musician.
When radio in the United States was king, Les Paul was in his prime. Performing by day with some of the biggest bands of the era, he recalls spending his nights learning music with some of the biggest names in the Harlem section of New York City. "And that was jazz. And so I would go up there and sit with Lester Young, and listen to him, Dizzy Gillespie, anybody you wish to name, Art Tatum — all the greats."
Paul became a household name as leader of the Les Paul Trio, often playing on the radio networks that broadcast his music into homes across the country.
Almost 70 years later, he is still playing, now with a quartet, for reverential fans who see him as a living music pioneer. "I didn't realize that I was a pioneer," he admits. "I did realize that the particular thing I was looking for was not available."
What he was looking for was a guitar that he could play with a band or an orchestra without being drowned out by all the other instruments. In other words, he needed a LOUD guitar.
Les Paul's inner inventor took over. Using a piece of railroad steel and telephone wires, he created an electric guitar with a uniquely dynamic electronic voice. It was the prototype of what is now one of the most widely used instruments on the planet: the solid-body electric guitar.
The Gibson musical instrument company liked Paul's guitar and began manufacturing and selling it to some of the top musicians of the day. The "Gibson Les Paul" continues to be a top seller and the preferred instrument of many artists.
Paul says he is amazed at how popular his instrument has become. "I was a pioneer then, but today, a guitarist has television, he has all types of recording devices. He can see, he can hear, he can learn from the best teachers in the world. And a guitar is the number one instrument in the world today. When I was a kid it was a piano."
Les Paul was not only a pioneer in the way music was played, but also how it was heard. He explains, "My electronics were one half of my life, and the other half of my life was music, and they finally married each other. You needed both of them to do what happened."
Tinkering in his home recording studio, Les Paul decided to combine recordings of different guitar sounds, blending in the voice of his wife at the time, singer Mary Ford. He also experimented with playing tracks at different speeds and pitch and playing them back simultaneously. The method, called multi-track recording, created a sound that came to define pop music in the 1960s. It continues to be a staple in sound recording today.
Age has taken a toll on Les Paul, the musician. A car accident in the 1940s and now arthritis cause pain in his hands and arms. While that forced this lifelong guitarist to learn a different method to play the guitar, it hasn't changed the outcome.
Nor has it changed Les Paul, the inventor. If anything, old age has inspired him. He can't hear as well as he used to, so his latest project is to fix the problem. "To make [a hearing aid] that is much more comfortable and much more satisfying is to make a better hearing aid, and that's what I am here to do," he declares.
For a lifetime of achievements, Les Paul was honored with a 2007 National Medal of the Arts, one of the nation's highest civilian honors, at a Washington D.C. ceremony hosted by President George Bush in November. It was another milestone in a career this enduring musician promises is far from over. "If you're gonna make 100, you only got a few years left," he observes, "and you have so much you'd like to say or do, things that you haven't finished doing yet that you would love to do."
Les Paul was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1988. Many of his musical inventions are part of a collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
Meanwhile, the town of Waukesha, Wisconsin, is currently planning a permanent exhibit honoring its most famous citizen. The "Les Paul Experience" is scheduled to open there in 2010. The aging musician would be 95 years old then, and says he hopes to be there to see it open.