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At 92, Music Pioneer Les Paul Still Performing

Born in the small town of Waukesha in the Midwest U.S. state of Wisconsin in 1915, Les Paul showed signs of musical ability at a young age. From those small roots, the musician and inventor traveled the country. From piano to banjo to guitar, Paul played with some of the biggest names in music during the Great Depression, before turning his talents on changing the way music was recorded. VOA's Kane Farabaugh spent time with the music legend before one of his regular shows in New York City, where he still performs at the age of 92.

It is a Monday night in Midtown Manhattan, and the Iridium Jazz Club is packing in the crowds.

Inside, the arthritic hands of an elderly musician tune a guitar before the evening performance. The man behind the instrument was born Lester Polfuss, but he is better known as Les Paul.

In the 1930s, Les Paul was in his prime. Performing by day with some of the biggest bands of the era, he spent nights learning music with some of the biggest names in the Harlem music scene.

"I'm learning to play the music that you don't play," Paul said. "The music that's missing. It belongs in there. 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."

He became a household name as head of the Les Paul Trio, heard on radio sets throughout the country.

Almost 70 years later, now as a quartet, he is still performing in front of full audiences, gathered to see a music pioneer. "I didn't realize that I was a pioneer," he says modestly. "I did realize that the particular thing I was looking for was not available," he explains.

Paul wanted a guitar that he could play, with a band or an orchestra, that wouldn't be drowned out. He needed a loud guitar.

Not just a musician but also lifelong inventor, Les Paul went to work on a new instrument. Originally using railroad steel and telephone parts, he created what is now one of the most widely used instruments -- the single-body, electric guitar.

Paul explains, "To my amazement there are so many today versus the fact there was only one -- I was the only guy who could get out there and do anything with it. And a guitar is the number one instrument in the world today. When I was a kid it was a piano."

The Gibson musical instrument company began manufacturing and selling Les's electric guitar. The "Gibson Les Paul" continues to be a top seller and preferred instrument of many musicians.

"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." Paul said.

What happened began with Les Paul tinkering in his home recording studio. He combined recordings of different guitar sounds, blending in the voice of his wife at the time, singer Mary Ford. He then experimented with those tracks at different speeds and pitch and played 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.

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 that this 1988 inductee into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame promises is far from over.

"If you're going to make 100, you only got a few years left, and you've got so much you'd like to say or do, things that you haven't finished doing yet that you would love to do," Paul said.

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 then be 95 years old, and hopes to be there to see it open.