He played with everyone from Bing Crosby to Art Tatum to Groucho Marx to Keith Richards. He had over 40 Top 40 hits. He designed the first solid body electric guitar. He invented multi-track recording. He built the first home recording studio. You could easily make an argument that without Les Paul, the music business as we know it might not even exist. Quite simply, he was one of the true giants of 20th century music.
In celebration of what would be Les Paul’s 98th birthday today, here are a few of the stories he told us in an entertaining and inspiring 2005 interview. We miss you, Les!
Who was the first guitarist who made you say, “Holy cow!”
Eddie Lang. I heard him noodling behind Bing on an early broadcast. Then behind the Boswell Sisters. I realized that there was someone out there who was very advanced. So I bummed a ride in a Model T Ford and got from Waukesha to Milwaukee and went to the music store and ordered some recordings of Eddie’s. When I got them, I realized how little I knew. The other one was Segovia. Between those two, I had plenty of work to do (laughs). In the meantime, I was listening to WLS and WSM in Nashville and KWKH down in Shreveport. Those programs made me first become a bluegrass player. From there, I started to branch out into jazz.
You’ve said that the first time you heard a Django Reinhardt record was a turning point for you.
It was surely a step in the right direction. I admired him a lot, and learned that he also was an admirer of Eddie Lang. He learned from the very same records as I did. We were going different directions, but there are similarities. In 1944, Django came to the Paramount Theater, where I was playing, and the doorman yelled up—I was on the sixth floor—“There’s a fella named Django Reinhardt here. Should I send him up?” I said, “Send him up with a case of beer and Jesus Christ and I’ll give ’em both an autographed picture.” I didn’t believe him. In walks Django, and that was the first time we met. He had an interpreter with him. We sat down and we jammed on “Night and Day.” He was a wonderful person. We got to be great friends.
So many jazz guitarists just stand on stage and look down at their instruments. Aside from your playing, you were always known for having a lively stage presence. Did that come naturally?
Starting out as a country player and growing up playing to an audience, and realizing, when you make a record, what sells and what doesn’t sell—I learned to give the people what they want. Stan Kenton and I used to have conversations about this. Stan would say, “I’m going to educate the public to good music. That’s my goal in life.” It was the opposite of my goal. My goal is not to teach anybody anything. Mine is to give them what they wish to hear, and something they can understand without having a book or having to study picking technique. I always wanted to entertain the people. They paid to get in. Give them their money’s worth.
But certainly you had a lot of technique that musicians could appreciate.
Sure. You don’t want to be held back because of a lack of technique. Technique is practice. But technique is not where it’s at. Where it’s really at is what you do with what you got. The key to it is to say something with your instrument, so it’s like a conversation. You’re getting a message across. If the fellow you’re speaking to is very intelligent, you can get more technical. But if he’s not particularly intellectual, you realize this, and you don’t try to educate the man, but you try to talk to him on his terms.
I love your recording of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” with Bing Crosby. The solo has wonderfully expressive phrasing. How did you develop your phrasing?
First, thank you for liking that song and that solo. I’ve always thought that it had something to say. There was a typical case of you don’t have to play a lot of notes, you just have to play the right notes. And that tells the whole story. When we got done playing the number, Bing was the first man to ever kiss me (laughs). He came over and said, “That was just great.” All I was really doing was replacing Eddie Lang, who was my mentor. Bing was a sucker for guitar, and that particular song was one that didn’t need a lot of technique to say what it should say.
I’m fascinated by the period of your life, in the mid-1940s, when you were inventing things in your garage studio. What was it like the first time you got the multi-tracking sound on sound to work?
At first, I didn’t tell Mary [Ford], I didn’t tell anybody. I just locked myself out there in that garage and said, “I’m going to make a sound where people will be able to tell me from anybody else.” And it had to be different. Something that was brand new, something fresh. I went in with that idea, and lo and behold, when I found it, I was very excited. Finally, when I made one—it was “Lover”—we were at a garage party near Sunset and Fairfax, I was there with Artie Shaw and the actor who played Dillinger in the movies [Lawrence Tierney]. They were smoking pot, and they had a record changer there, and I put my record in amongst theirs. When mine came up, Artie said, “What in the world is that?” The others flipped out, and Mary said, “That’s Les.” But the first person to hear it, oddly enough, was W.C. Fields. He came to my garage to record. When I played it for him, he said “My boy, you sound like an octopus (laughs).”
Having played music your whole life, what would you say is the most difficult aspect of your job?
I’ve talked to some of the greatest players on earth. I’ve asked them “What’s the toughest thing for you in music?” and I get the same answer. “It’s to play slow, or to play with feeling.” It’s the same thing with songwriting. Like Irving Berlin. He did nothing but grind out hits, one after another, and every one of them was simple. Three or four changes. And there he is, with the greatest, longest-lasting songs in the world. They’re so simple. That’s hard to do. Count Basie, the longer he was alive, the less notes he could play, because of his illness. The less notes he played, the more he thought about playing the right note. The last time he performed, at the Grammy Awards, I was there. He was in a wheelchair, and we helped him up onto the ramp and got him to the piano. He put his left hand up, and he counted the band off, and they’re playing like crazy. All of a sudden they break, and he hits one note. And I thought, “God almighty, that’s the best note I ever heard (laughs).”
—Interview by Bill DeMain
From Performing Sognwriter Issue 88