Remembering Les Paul, June 9, 1915 - August 13, 2009
Les Paul's nose was running. It was during one of his weekly Monday gigs at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York, and I was sitting about ten feet from where he was sitting on stage. He looked at me, pointed at the napkin on my lap and gestured for me to toss it to him. So I did. He wiped his nose and then started to cock his arm back like he was going to throw it back to me, at which point I held me hand up, motioning, "You keep it." He smiled, dropped the napkin on the floor and went on playing.
That was in 2000, just after I'd moved to New York from Denver, and seeing Paul, who passed away yesterday at the age of 94, was at the top of my list for things do in the city. I was still getting used to the subway system, and I got to the Iridium, which was across the street from Lincoln Center at the time (it's since moved to Times Square), a few minutes before the show started. I expected the show to be sold out, since it was Les Paul, the guy who revolutionized music as we know it today by pioneering the solid body electric guitar and multi-track recording.
But there was one seat available right in front of the Paul. Paul talked about how his arthritis made playing the guitar more difficult and that he wasn't nearly fast as he used to be. Paul let guitarist Frank Vignola take the spotlight quite a few times and played swift Django-inspired riffs. Although Paul, who was in mid-80s at the time, wasn't nearly as quick and agile as the thirty-something Vignola, it was obvious Paul was pouring his heart into the music, playing sparse and thoughtful phrases.
Sure, it was quite different than first hearing a cassette of Paul's virtuosic guitar playing with Mary Ford. A friend of my mom's had given me the tape when I was 15 and just started playing guitar, and until then I figured the Gibson Les Paul was just the model of a guitar and not actually named after an actual person. And it took another decade to realize what a genius the guy really was, both as a musician and an inventor, and what kind of impact he had on the history of music.
I experienced some of that genius when I got my first Gibson Les Paul, a mid-'70s gold top Pro Deluxe with cream-colored P-90 pick-ups. As with most Les Pauls, the guitar just felt solid. Yeah, it was heavy as hell and my back would sometimes scream at me after having the thing strapped on during two-hour band rehearsals, but the tone and the sustain of that thing was gorgeous, man, especially with the soap bar pick-ups. That was my main axe for about seven years until I sold it to Ludlow Guitars in New York's Lower East Side to pay the rent on my Brooklyn apartment.
While it depressed the hell out of me to let that baby go, I was just glad to have felt and heard the Les Paul magic and genius for those seven years. And to get a chance to see the guy behind the guitar in person that one time, well, it was a beautiful experience.