Les Paul Still 'Chasing Sound' at 92 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. In a new PBS documentary, Les Paul: Chasing Sound, he tells his remarkable life story.
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Les Paul Still 'Chasing Sound' at 92

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Les Paul Still 'Chasing Sound' at 92

Les Paul Still 'Chasing Sound' at 92

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Lester William Polsfuss was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915. He was attracted to music early. He first tried the harmonica, then banjo, and, finally, the instrument that would change his life and his name - the guitar. He became Les Paul.

He discovered jazz and musical history was about to be made. His talents weren't confined to performing music. Les Paul pioneered the development of the solid body electric guitar and multi-track recording. He employed both in the hit records he made with his wife, Mary Ford, in the 1950s.

(Soundbite of song, "How High The Moon")

Mr. LES PAUL (Jazz Guitarist): (Singing) Somewhere there's music. How faint the tune. Somewhere there's heaven. How high the moon. There is no moon above. When love is far away too. Till it comes true. That you love me as I love you. Somewhere there's music…

HANSEN: Les Paul celebrated his 92nd birthday this summer. Now, most other musicians would be content to relax and collect an occasional royalty check at that age. But Les Paul is still working. Each Monday, he plays two shows at New York's Iridium Jazz Club. Both shows are always sold out. Last month, a documentary about him was released. It's called "Les Paul: Chasing Sound."

And as reporter Lars Hoel discovered, chasing sound is still what Les Paul is all about.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. PAUL: Low (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, it's all covered.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. PAUL: I'll tell them we're here.

LARS HOEL: With two hours to go until the Iridium Club opens its doors, Les Paul is not entirely happy with the echo effect on his guitar.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. PAUL: She just makes it.

HOEL: Although he's been playing a Monday night gig for two decades, Les Paul still shows up four hours early. Most of that time is spent in a typically thorough sound check.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. PAUL: Maybe if I raise it a little, screwdriver and I'll adjust…

HOEL: And some of the time before the show is set aside for greeting well-wishers like singer and guitarist Steve Miller.

Mr. STEVE MILLER (Singer, Guitarist): Yeah.

Mr. PAUL: What the hell happened?

Mr. MILLER: You're happening, baby.

Mr. PAUL: I mean, how are you?

Mr. MILLER: I'm well. I just finished…

Mr. PAUL: Which one are your doing?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I just finished doing four cities in four days. And I'm in town for a few days and…

Mr. PAUL: Good for you.

HOEL: When Steve Miller was 4, Les Paul taught him his first guitar chords. The lessons paid off. In the '70s, the Steve Miller Band enjoyed great commercial success. In the documentary, "Les Paul: Chasing Sound," Miller says he became a musician not for the money, but because Les Paul seemed be to be enjoying himself so much.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MILLER: 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.

(Soundbite of recorded performance)

Mr. MILLER: Hey, Les.

(Singing) You can't take it with you. That's one thing for sure. So let me have that guitar (unintelligible). I said you can't take it with you. That's one thing for sure. Well, you just remember, ain't nothing that a Les Paul guitar can't cure.

Come on, Les.

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

HOEL: It may be true there's nothing a Les Paul guitar can't cure. The man himself performs in spite of numerous infirmities. His right arm is locked in a permanent 90-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 Les Paul, it is really doctor's orders.

Mr. PAUL: In 1980, 65 years old, I had a bypass. After the operation was over, the doctor asked me two things that he liked me to do. One is to be my friend, and if you promise me you'll work hard. I thought that's what got me in here. I can't believe this.

HOEL: Recovering in his hospital room after what was in fact a quintuple bypass, Les Paul made two lists. One was what he didn't like.

Mr. PAUL: I didn't want to play for big crowds. I didn't want a boss telling me that you've 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 want to be famous.

HOEL: In the other column, among the things he enjoyed, he found a surprise.

Mr. PAUL: That the best fun I ever had was in the little joint where I could do what I want to do, how I want 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 on making new friends.

HOEL: Many of Les Paul's old friends, including Tony Bennett, the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, guitarist Chet Atkins, singer Kay Starr and others have joined him on stage throughout the years. And as we also see in "Les Paul: Chasing Sound," the new friends are the ones packing the audience.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Les Paul: Chasing Sound")

Unidentified Man #2: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. We are (unintelligible) to present Les Paul and his Trio. So without any further ado. Here's the man that changed the music for all of us. The great one and the (unintelligible) wizard of Waukesha, Mr. Les Paul.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

HOEL: We know from interviews we did when you are 90 about the various personal physical mishaps. We know you're not playing at 92 the way you did when you're 22.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAUL: That's for sure.

HOEL: How have you reinvented yourself? Have you changed your plan?

Mr. PAUL: That's a terribly interesting question. In the time that you're going through a hard time, you have a chance to rerun the tape and look back and say, I don't know, if I'm going to make a hit record and nothing I've made so far is a hit record, what am I doing wrong that I'm not making a hit record? And you can think about your playing and you say, well, you know, I played the run this way, why did I do that? And it dawns on you that there's a much more comfortable, easier way to do it and that would never have happened have I not been set back.

HOEL: Les Paul's longtime rhythm guitarist Lou Pallo agrees. Pallo says that those setbacks just made Les Paul even better.

Mr. LOU PALLO (Rhythm Guitarist): He does play such like what we call pearls(ph). Instead of just trying to play a lot of fast notes, the notes mean a lot on a fast-tempo song, but on a pretty balld, it's just that there are pearls that he puts in.

HOEL: Sort of the count daisy approach. That's one note.

Mr. PALLO: Yes, exactly. One note here, one note there, and the right note, the correct prompt(ph).

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

Mr. PAUL: I don't want the players know what I'm going to do. I've spent my whole life as always to keep the - all the people on their toes. They don't dare read a magazine or fall asleep because they don't know what's going to happen next. And so even if I'm telling a story, I'll tell it in a different place in a different way so that they're - not have to take their minds off of what I'm doing. And it's that impromptu of the public sees and enjoys so much that they are part of the show. The audience is part of the show.

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

HOEL: For NPR News, I'm Lars Hoel in New York.

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

HANSEN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

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