CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – Les Paul, the guitar virtuoso and inventor who died Thursday at 94, always found a funny way to confront me with a bit of history. The first time we met – me the young rock journalist, he a living legend – was in the far-too-small men’s room at Fat Tuesdays, the basement jazz club in New York City. Paul was occupied when I entered, but as he turned to leave he caught my eye and said, “You know, I was just thinking about Franklin Roosevelt.”
Given the circumstances, I failed to take in all the details that followed, but in an instant Paul had established two facts about himself – no one was a stranger and no opportunity was to be passed up to make a connection.
From that point on Paul, who built his prototype solid-body electric guitar in 1941, and who with Charlie Christian brought the electric guitar to the forefront of jazz, became a recurring character in my professional life.
Four extended interviews followed, including one at his secluded home in the hills of Mahwah, New Jersey. Several versions of his Gibson Les Paul guitar, the instrument of choice for generations of rock musicians, filled his home, which still had many furnishings dating back to the 1950s and early 1960s. A bowl on the counter was filled with screws and knobs and such – evidence of his lifelong love of tinkering – and in the middle of the living room stood a tall stack of reel-to-reel tape recorders.
Noticing the attention I was paying the stack, and having answered my questions about how and why he invented multitrack recording, Paul once again exhibited that special twinkle he’d get in his eyes.
“You know, that’s it,” he said, motioning toward the world’s first multitrack recording machine, a conglomeration made of Army surplus records that he’d wired together in 1949. “That’s what I did the first records on, the first sound-on-sound. It’s headed for the Smithsonian.”
As my jaw dropped, his pride in his place in history evaporated into a look concern.
“There’s just one little problem,” he said. “Things tend to be in a museum for two or three years, and then they take them out and put them in storage for five years. I don’t want this to go to sleep in somebody’s warehouse or basement. So what I told them is I’d be happy to lease it for display, so long as it comes back here when it’s not on the museum floor.
“You know the other thing,” Paul said. “The real difficult thing is that nobody knows what the hell it is unless I identify it. They’ll arrive before it and say, ‘Well, is it this machine or that machine? Who knows?” Well, only I know.'”
I know where that cornerstone of recording history is today, hours after Paul succumbed to pneumonia in a hospital in White Plains, N.Y. But having known Les a little, I get the feeling he’ll still be around in some way, not letting people forget.
A performer from his teens, Les Paul became famous in the 1940s and early 1950s, thanks to the multitracked hits he recorded with his wife, Mary Ford. Among the classics they recorded during the period were “How High the Moon,” “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Vaya con Dios” and “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.”
All the while he continued to invent gadgets, and continued to experiment in electrified sound.
“Wherever I was, (inventing) followed me,” Paul said during one of our conversations. “If I was on tour, you’d find me in the dressing room fooling with it, and if I was home, I’d be in my lab working on something.
“It was part of me, something I was constantly thinking about,” he said. “You know how it is when something turns you on; any time you’ve got time on your hands you turn your attention to it. Rather than go off and play golf, I’d do that.”
Although jazz did not remain front and center in the public’s taste or attention, Les Paul’s guitars did, in the hands of fellow such as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Slash.
In fact, when I visited his home, a backstage pass to a Jimmy Page concert was affixed to his kitchen refrigerator.
Paul described his development of that guitar and a decades-long process, during which there were several false starts and dead ends. Even after the Gibson guitar company had sold thousands of the instruments and it had long been part of the popular culture, its inventor kept trying to improve it.
“Constantly,” he said. “If you’ve got something good, probably the most important thing is to know how you got it. What makes it good? Because so many things are arrived at by accident. I spent a long time getting something I thought was good, and I think I did find ways to make it even better as Gibson produced the various prototypes.
“Of course, even I’ll admit that you can take things too far; sometimes even a small change will wind up being for the worse.”
Paul, who retired from performing in the mid-1960s, enjoyed a career renaissance that began in earnest in the 1980s and continued until his death. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and won two Grammys in 2006, for his album “Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played.”
For several years he played every Monday night at Fat Tuesday’s, and more recently at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York, despite the fact that arthritis had left him with the use of only two fingers in his left hand.
Of his playing, he once told me, “It’s different than a dog, but (my guitar) is my friend. It’s a way of transmitting your feelings to the public. You can say a lot with it.”