Les Paul Still 'Chasing Sound' at 92

Les Paul and Paul McCartney i i

Les Paul inspects one his own signature Gibson guitars with Sir Paul McCartney. Chasing Sound, LLC hide caption

itoggle caption Chasing Sound, LLC
Les Paul and Paul McCartney

Les Paul inspects one his own signature Gibson guitars with Sir Paul McCartney.

Chasing Sound, LLC
Les Paul and Mary Ford i i

A younger Les Paul with singer and then-wife Mary Ford. Between 1950 and 1954, the couple had 16 top-ten hits. In 1951 alone, the duo sold six million records. Chasing Sound, LLC hide caption

itoggle caption Chasing Sound, LLC
Les Paul and Mary Ford

A younger Les Paul with singer and then-wife Mary Ford. Between 1950 and 1954, the couple had 16 top-ten hits. In 1951 alone, the duo sold six million records.

Chasing Sound, LLC

Earlier this summer, guitarist Les Paul celebrated his 92nd birthday. At an age when other musicians may be content to relax and collect an occasional royalty check, Paul still works.

Les Paul i i

Les Paul pioneered the solid-body electric guitar, invented multitrack recording and innovated and created multiple reverberation and echo effects. Gene Martin hide caption

itoggle caption Gene Martin
Les Paul

Les Paul pioneered the solid-body electric guitar, invented multitrack recording and innovated and created multiple reverberation and echo effects.

Gene Martin

Each Monday, he plays two shows at New York City's Iridium Jazz Club. Both shows always are sold out. Outside on Broadway, latecomers line the sidewalk and hope for last-minute tickets. They have come to see and hear a musical legend whose name is synonymous with the solid-body electric guitar he pioneered.

Paul's remarkable life story has been told many times, beginning at the age of eight playing harmonica in Waukesha, Wis., through a string of hit records with Mary Ford, to his invention of multitrack recording. This month, Les Paul tells this story himself in a new documentary from the PBS American Masters series called Les Paul: Chasing Sound.

Although he has been playing a regular Monday night gig for more than two decades, Les Paul still shows up for work four hours early. Most of that time is spent in a typically thorough sound check. Some of the time before the show is set aside for greeting well-wishers, like singer and guitarist Steve Miller.

Paul taught Miller his first guitar chords at the age of 4. The lessons paid off because in the '70s, the Steve Miller Band enjoyed great commercial success. In the American Masters documentary, Miller says he became a musician not for the money, but because Paul seemed be to be enjoying himself so much.

Miller says, "I looked at what he was doing and it looked like it was more fun than anybody I'd ever seen. And that was what I wanted to do."

Paul performs in spite of numerous infirmities. His right arm is locked in a permanent ninety-degree angle, the result of a car accident in 1948. The fingers of his left hand, which danced up and down the fret board when he was young, are now stiffened by arthritis. He wears hearing aids in both ears. All of which begs the question: Why continue performing, week after week? According to Paul, it is really doctor's orders.

"In 1980, 65 years old, I had a bypass," Paul says. "After the operation was over, the doctor asked me two things he'd like me to do: one is to be my friend, and promise me you'll work hard. I said, 'I thought that's what got me in here! I can't believe this!'"

Recovering in his hospital room after what was in fact a quintuple bypass, Paul made two lists. In the first column were all the things he did not like:

"I didn't want to play for big crowds. I didn't want a boss telling me that you ran over two minutes. I don't want a guy to direct the show and put a lot of pressure on me. I didn't want to do a lot of interviews. And I had no reason in the world to be famous."

In the other column, he discovered something surprising about himself:

"The best fun I ever had was in the little joint where I could do what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it, play for a few of my friends. It would be great therapy, a reason to get me out of bed. I could always surround myself with young musicians that could play what I used to play or play better than what I played. And I could continue making new friends."

Many of Paul's old friends, including Tony Bennett, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, guitarist Chet Atkins, singer Kay Starr and others have joined him on stage throughout the years. But as seen in Les Paul: Chasing Sound, the new friends are the ones packing the audience. The documentary is now available on DVD from Koch Vision.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.