Les Paul, Still Strumming on the Cusp of 90 Guitar legend Les Paul is about to turn 90 and still going strong. He plays weekly at New York's Iridium Jazz Club, and he has a string of new albums coming out. Tom Vitale visits with Paul in New York.

Les Paul, Still Strumming on the Cusp of 90

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, rediscovering a founding father of the Second City Theater company, but first, for many, the name Les Paul rhymes with music. Go ahead, say it yourself. One of the most played guitars in rock 'n' roll bears Mr. Paul's name. For an older generation, he and his wife, Mary Ford, were chart-topping pop stars. Les Paul popularized recording techniques that are studio standards today. This coming Thursday, Mr. Paul celebrates his 90th birthday. Tom Vitale visited him in New York and has this report.

TOM VITALE reporting:

Just about every week for the past 21 years, Les Paul has driven from his home in Mahwah, New Jersey, into the city to play in a small club. For even longer, Paul has played guitar despite severe physical limitations. A 1948 car crash left his picking arm shattered, held together now by screws. His fretting hand is also frozen by arthritis.

Mr. LES PAUL (Musician): I have half movement here of my thumb, and I have half movement from an operation here. See, that's on the little finger. The rest of them are all frozen, every one of them, and so what you do is you lay your hand flat across the string.

VITALE: Still, it requires effort. As his quartet warms up, Paul works on the ending of "Blue Skies" determined to get his guitar to mesh with a new piano player.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: The guest pianist is Monty Alexander, a jazz star in his own right, but this is his first time on stage with Les Paul at the Club Iridium. Alexander says he grew up in Jamaica listening to Paul's 1950s pop records, but he only discovered the guitarist's talent as an improviser when he heard him at the club.

Mr. MONTY ALEXANDER (Musician): Les is not trying to be the fast guitar player he once was, but when he plays those few notes, it's the perfect note to play and that's something Miles Davis did. It's something Harry "Sweets" Edison did. And I love that about him.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: It seems Les Paul has always known how to please listeners. Not long after getting a harmonica at the age of eight, he was making money performing on street corners in his hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Before he was 20, he was in Chicago playing live music on the radio for two different audiences--jazz in the evening and country in the morning.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAUL: (Singing) Though you made me spend all my money. Then you laughed and called me old Santa Claus, but I'm telling you, honey, I'm leaving you because, just because.

I was Red Hot Red in the morning and Les Paul at night. And at night, I was addicted to people like Coleman Hawkins and Earl Hines, some of the great, great players of jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAUL: The difference was the money. I would bank $1,000 a week as a hillbilly doing four or five commercial shows, and then, when I played jazz, I worked for $5 a week.

VITALE: Paul wound up in Hollywood working and learning from a man who knew a thing or two about making a hit record.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BING CROSBY (Singer): So kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again. It's been a long, long time.

VITALE: Les Paul went from Bing Crosby to another million-selling act in 1946, The Andrew Sisters. He was playing with them in Chicago when his mother drove down from Wisconsin to hear them.

Mr. PAUL: And she had said to me, `Lester, I heard you while I was driving down on the air,' and she says, `You sounded great.' I says, `Mom, it couldn't be me. I'm on the stage here working with The Andrew Sisters.' And she says, `Well, then you ought to do something about it because there's somebody out there or many out there with their electric guitars that sound like you. I can't tell which one's you.'

VITALE: So Paul left The Andrew Sisters and returned to his home studio determined to come up with a sound his mother would recognize. He ramped up his experiments with sound on sound. He'd record a guitar part on the master-tape disc, play it back, playing a second part along with it, and record them both onto a second disc. Then he'd repeat the process, adding a third part and so on.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Experimenting with electronics is something Les Paul has done since he was a child. Paul is often credited with inventing the solid body electric guitar, though another man, George Beauchamp, filed the first patent for a solid body in 1931 when Paul was just 16. Still, Les Paul remembers as a kid trying different ways to make his guitar sound louder. He says he stretched a single string across a steel railroad tie and amplified it with the insides of a telephone receiver.

Mr. PAUL: And what happened was terrific. That magnet and those coils underneath that string--and I just plucked that string. I had it rigged up so that it went right into the grid of the tube and into the radio, and it came through the radio and I heard that sound. I went running to my mother and I said, `Mom, I've got it. I've got it.'

VITALE: He didn't, at least not quite yet, and he kept experimenting with sound. He approached the Ampex Corporation, which had been working with the US Navy on recording multiple tracks of data on a new device, the tape recorder. Paul wanted to use it for music, to replace his cumbersome sound-on-sound discs. In 1949, he added a crucial element to his arsenal of sounds: the voice of Mary Ford, his wife. Together, they made one hit record after another.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARY FORD: (Singing) Where there's music, how near, how far; where there's heaven, it's where you are. The darkest night that shine of you would come to me soon, until you will have stole my heart, how high the moon.

VITALE: The president of Listerine heard this song on the radio and he asked Les Paul and Mary Ford to do a weekly show. Les, however, had a different idea.

Mr. PAUL: I foolishly says, `Why don't we do five minutes five times a day? You could catch the guy getting up in the morning. You could catch him at noon. You could catch him in the afternoon. You could catch him in the evening.' The catcher was--the president says, `Let's do it from your home.'

(Soundbite of "Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home")

Mr. PAUL: Hello, folks. Let's see. I've got my guitar. I've got my wife, Mary.

Ms. FORD: Hi.

Mr. PAUL: And I've got a room just loaded with electronics. We've got some inventions here that make one voice sound like many voices and one guitar like many guitars, and by means of these six L6s and plugging them into this amplifier, why we manage to...

Ms. FORD: Let me tell them, Les. You're a genius.

Mr. PAUL: Oh, don't embarrass me.

Ms. FORD: Oh, yes, you are. Anyone can take...

VITALE: "Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home" ran for seven years from the same home Les Paul occupies today, but there was a downside to success.

Mr. PAUL: The work was beginning to take a toll on Mary. You're looking at a guy here that loves work, but Mary says, `I would like to just take care of the children and be at home and be an ordinary person.' And so Mary said, `Why don't we just give it up?' I said, `I can't give it up.' And so it became a problem. My life is my work. I've got to work.

VITALE: Les and Mary divorced in 1963, and despite his need to keep working, Les stopped performing for 10 years. He returned in 1974 with an album he made in one take with guitarist Chet Atkins and won Les Paul his first Grammy.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Then Les Paul began performing Monday nights with his own band in a New York night club.

Mr. PAUL: And that was the beginning of the most beautiful part of my life was beginning working in a little joint. You just played what you liked to do and hope that you could win the audience over and that they'll like it.

VITALE: So despite the arthritis, he keeps going.

Mr. PAUL: Every setback might be the very thing that makes you carry on and fight all the harder and become that much better. And I probably will play until I fall over and that's the end.

VITALE: Les Paul says he's about to release five new albums. The first in August will be his first rock record.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

SIMON: And to hear more music from Les Paul, you can come to our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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