The words “Les Paul,” for those of us who grew up after the 60′s, brought to mind the guitar that bore his name. This guitar was symbolic of the of the notorious rock bands who wielded it, such as Led Zeppelin, The Who, Kiss and Guns’n'Roses. Although these bands were infamous for being role models of bad behavior, you could put any of the guitarists in a room with Les Paul, the man, and you’d suddenly see a polite, well behaved young man being respectful to an elder.
For earlier generations, the words “Les Paul” conjured images of a gentle, humble, self deprecating man on TV and Radio, a genius inventor and master musician and one half of the hit entertainment duo Les Paul & Mary Ford. While Les Paul, the guitar, will live on well into the future, Les Paul, the man, sadly, is not immortal. Les passed away yesterday at the age of 94.
My first ‘real’ guitar was a Cherry Sunburst Gibson Les Paul. The guitar I’ve done the most shows and recordings on is a gold top reissue Gibson Les Paul (like the one at right in the picture). The guitar I’m currently playing, a Heritage signature model (which I’ll write about soon), is based on the Les Paul and built in the factory where most of the classic Les Pauls were built in the 60′s and 70′s. Visiting New York and eventually moving there in 90′s allowed me to find out more about the man behind these guitars.
Les’s Monday night gigs at the Iridium (and Fat Tuesdays’ in the 90′s), were a landmark of New York City nightlife. If you were into music on any level, hearing Les was something you absolutely had to do whether visiting or as a resident. Like another iconic entertainer, David Letterman, he became a symbol of the hipness and high standards of New York City, despite being a Midwesterner with none of the stereotypical character traits associated with New Yorkers.
I had the fortune of hearing Les four times in my life. Two of those times, I waited in line to meet Les, after the show. The first time, I had him sign my Les Paul CD box set and the second time, I had him sign the ‘gold top,’ which had been recently acquired. He wasn’t aware of who I was but I didn’t care. I was happy just to be a fan. Like the main character in Erica Jong’s novel ‘Fanny’ who says “Persons of superior character treat everyone with similar good humor,” Les treated everyone with equal respect. Good humor was a large part of who he was.
Even the first time I heard him, nearly twenty years ago, there was always a feeling that it could be the last time. How much longer can he keep this up? Yet here he was on stage, cracking jokes and doing what he loved to do into his 90′s. Les was ‘shredding’ before there was such a term and never stopped. On stage and in the autograph line, he would talk about his playing and inventions like comedy stories, never losing his good will and sense of humor. Yet these creations, which he talked about as if he’d come up with a new trash can lid, included multitracking, delay, reverb and the solidbody guitar, totally changing the fields of audio and music as we know it.
Les put the concept of ‘retirement’ to shame, proving that if you love what you do, there is no need for it. He saw retirement as premature death and stayed fully alive until it was truly time to go. We should all look to Les as an example, not just as someone who maximized his talents and creativity but someone who lived life to the fullest as well. While it is always sad to see a life lost, in Les’ case, it is truly a life worth celebrating.