Date Posted: 2010-02-23
was so fortunate to have spent hours interviewing Les (for Talking Jazz, Jersey Jazz, June 2008). His memory was amazingly sharp as was his wit. In spite of all the accolades for his great achievements, he was wonderfully cooperative, patient, and easy to talk to. He made you feel that you were with a friendly neighbor, rather than a musical colossus. The following are some of my memories and those of his fellow musicians.
I heard Pat Martino say that when he first came to New York and was struggling to get started, Les Paul took him in until he established himself. Later he got Les to come to hear him play and during Pat’s break, they hurried to see Wes Montgomery perform nearby. They stood at the bar and Wes came over to them. The young guitarist tried to introduce his benefactor to Wes but Wes said, “I know who this is. I have two guitar heroes, Charlie Christian and Les Paul.” Pat said he soon had to hurry back to his own gig and left Les there. He then said, “After I returned, I joined with Les Paul, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and George Benson for breakfast at Wells Diner.”
In Nov. 2006, Les performed at Kean University in Union, NJ. The show was delayed by about fifteen minutes while emergency personnel helped someone in the audience. Les then came out with his regular musicians from the Iridium. His guitar was giving him some trouble, and as he worked on it, he leaned to the microphone and quipped, “I should have brought a Fender.” They then did the standard first act; and as the others walked off for the break, Les stayed and answered questions from the audience until his band mates returned for the second half. After the show, Les said that if we would give him a few minutes, he would come out to the lobby for autographs and photographs. When we got there, the line of fans snaked back and forth completely filling the space. People held programs, CD’s, LP’s, guitars and scraps of paper. He signed them all and chatted with each fan. I’m sure he didn’t get out of there until long after midnight.
In April, 2007, Freddie Hubbard played at the Iridium. The night I was there, his performance was uneven, at best. The audience, however, gave him the applause he deserved for the music we remembered. Later, backstage, he talked with some fans. He told us that when he was unable to play, he would just sit home with the TV or video games and wish he could get back to New York. He said he was surprised to learn that Les Paul had managed to get him booked into the Iridium because he hadn’t been playing at all, and had no group. Freddie said he had to hustle to get ready and that it was a key event in his reemergence.
The last time I spoke to Les, he told me one final story. When his sons were quite young, they told him they had found his old Booger Brothers transmitter and damaged it. Considering that this was a piece of equipment that had almost killed Les, he wanted to impress the boys with how serious this was. After the fatherly warning to stay away from his electronic equipment, “we took the broadcast transmitter out in the back yard and I took a shotgun and shot it. Then we dug a hole and buried it.”
Les truly loved entertaining people. When we talked about his medical history and his reduced ability to play, he spoke about his need to perform. He had decided that if his medical problems left him totally unable to play the guitar, he would develop a comedy act and carry on. He was an amazing person and we will never see his like again. He was truly, “The one and only…”
Jack Wilkins: Les Paul was one of the true innovators of the jazz guitar. He was a traditionalist and also an electronic wizard. I was fortunate to play with him a few times and found him gracious along with his legendary sense of humor. Les Paul was an institution that will most likely never be equaled again. He will be missed.
John Pizzarelli: I always found Les to be extremely engaging, because he’d talk to you all day about the guitar. We did a gig in the ‘80’s that was on TV. Between the sound check and the gig we had like four hours. We sat backstage just talking about all the records he had made. He remembered those things like they were yesterday. The thing that still amazes me about Les Paul isn`t the multi-tracking, the electronics or the solid body guitar. It is the guitar playing itself. Les got a sound that was uniquely his own. Whether he was overdubbing it ten times or just playing the melody, it was always him. Also, he was such a vibrant and raucous person. I think the guitar kept him that way. I’ve [done an] homage to Les on almost every record I’ve made. He was fun to be around.
Marlene VerPlanck: I worked for Les in his studio during the jingle days but I have no real stories except he was a fun guy, very professional. The only thing I can say is I ran into him at The Iridium after about 25 years and he said, "Marlene, where have you been?" Great to the end...
Lew Soloff: I had very little personal contact with Les, silly me always had an open invite from his piano player to sit in, but only did it once when I worked opposite him with Jerry Vivino and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. However when I was a kid I would play Les Paul and Mary Ford records on the juke box over and over, notably “Via Con Dios”. It was thrilling when I finally met him.
Vic Juris: I met Les Paul when I was seventeen years old. I had just gotten my driver’s license and I drove up to his studio for my very first recording session. It was with a group of singers. His studio, in those days, was open to the public. I met him at that session and had a lifelong friendship with him. He treated me great and was very encouraging. He really liked what I did. He loved to play. He used to come to some of my gigs and sit in and play and hang out. I ended up spending a lot of time with him at his house. He was just a very interesting person to be around. I think inventing was what he enjoyed the most. He loved music and he loved the guitar and to be around people, but he was a naturally curious person. He could have lain back on his laurels and taken it easy but he kept trying to find new pickups for the guitar and things of that nature. He was a friend of mine. I really loved Les.
Paul Nowinski, Les`s bassist at one of his last gigs at Fat Tuesdays and the first four years at the original Iridium: The first time I heard of Les Paul, I didn’t know it was a person, I thought it was just a guitar. I was familiar with him, but I only met Les when he was 80. I [went to Fat Tuesdays] and saw his show and it was, “That guy is cool.” I spent almost five years with him and we remained friends. He was my adopted grandfather and the beginning of my old-timer musical experience. I remember that first night I played with him, he basically made that whole show about me. “Yeah, you know, he doesn’t know any of the songs, but he’s not bad, is he?” You had to have a sense of humor to stick with Les because if you didn’t, he didn’t want to be around you. Those years for me were like college… Show Business College. I didn’t like going to school, but I was really trying to learn that stuff and he had a lot to offer. He was a complete original; seriously from the old school. I loved him, I really did.
He had a catalogue of jokes that he would just hit every week. It was like fishing. He’d throw them out there and get a laugh and then he’d just stick on it and elaborate until he had everybody rolling. He would get the audience and just kill them. It was funny, after years of being off and going back and hearing all the same jokes and I was: “Les, I’ve got to tell you, when I was playing with you I didn’t think those jokes were that funny”; but he actually got me to crack up, just the way he told it. He would always riff on his material. Part of his show was teasing the band and Tony Bennett was there once and Les gave me a little bit extra-hard time that night. I got off stage and I saw Tony and he said, “Les Paul - Show Business 101.”
He’d let anybody get up on stage. That was the big part of the show. If somebody was really bad, he go, “Want to do another one?” If they knew nothing, he would make them play by themselves. And if they were good he’d keep them up there all night. There were times that Les wasn’t aware of who even was there. One night Carole Kaye came in. She played bass on all the Beach Boys records. She’s a tremendous L. A. session bass player. She and Joe Pass were really tight. She proceeded to get on stage and she was like Joe Pass on guitar. He said, “OK, you start it up” and because Les didn’t know who she was, she had no mercy and she just wiped the floor with him.
[Usually] people would come in and play so much all over the place. Then Les would play the melody with one finger and just bring the house down. They would play a million notes, and nobody felt anything, but when Les just played the melody that was so deep that it would affect people. He was upset that he couldn’t do the fast stuff and felt limited by his arthritis and everything, but it didn’t matter. He would figure out a different way to do it. That was one of the biggest lessons that I learned from him; play the melody. All he had to do is play the melody and the place would go crazy, all the time.
He was so tenacious, just sticking to what he wanted to do. He had a tremendous mental focus on the matter at hand, whatever it was. It was like a tunnel vision and I think that is why he got so much done.
He was one of the first tricksters to get that electric sound. Charlie Christian was an electric guitar player, but [his] guitar still sounded acoustic. When Les got his sound it was like from another world. All the things with the echoes and reverbs, he was the first to get into that so the rockers latched on to that. He was a show business entertainer on that guitar and he would do those tricks and Jeff Beck coped it and Jimmy Page copped it and then all the other guys. He’s had generations of influence.
Everybody is taking it hard, we’ve seen him get sick and come back so many times that it just seemed like OK, he’s just resting. He had a lot of wiry strength. His mind was just completely there, but when you’re that old… Everybody was sure he was going to make it to at least one hundred. We all wanted him to but all we have is his memory, his formula. We can all learn from that.
Bucky Pizzarelli: Les Paul got a sound on one note that nobody else could get a great, great sound. Les’s mind was always one step ahead of everybody else. I remember when I played with him at the St. Regis; I told him that Ed McMahon was coming in, because I was doing the Tonight Show. He got a table [set up] right next to us with a glass and a bottle of Budweiser beer because Ed used to do the ads for Budweiser. It was brilliant because when Ed saw it he broke up.
Lou Pallo, the ever-present guitar player on Les’s bandstand: I met him like forty five years ago and the first thing he said was here’s my phone number, give me a call. I spent a lot of time with him. We did a lot of jamming together. He followed me all around in New Jersey because he was retired at that time. No matter where I played, he’d show up. He’d bring his guitar, plug into my amp and just play with me. What a thrill [and] honor just to have him there, because when I was a kid, I idolized Les Paul. Then he said let’s get something going, we’ll do some concerts and maybe we’ll get a gig in New York, which we did. But we did a couple in New Jersey in what he called a box. When you go to a restaurant they always have a party room, it’s just a room there isn’t any bar, the ambiance is not the same and he didn’t like that. He wanted a nice nightclub where there is a stage and a bar. He liked to be close to people. He always said, “Lou, don’t get big. Don’t go to the big time, because when you play for 10,000, 20,000 people you’re not close to them and it is so nice to be near them.” He liked that nice nightclub intimacy. So we booked Fat Tuesdays and we were there for twelve years and then the Iridium for about thirteen years or whatever it was.
He had arthritis very bad. When he was sitting in with me all the time, he had problems with his fingers. He had to learn to play all over again [because] he was only using two or three fingers. He’d come in and say, Oh, my hands are hurting” and put them in hot water. He tried everything, but the arthritis was really so bad, but he still played and played good. When he played, especially “Over the Rainbow”, you wanted to cry, that was so great. No one could play it like him. There is no one that will get that Les Paul sound. He played the melody which is very important. When Les played, you went out humming the melody and he always said when people walk out humming the melody, you’ve got it made and he did.
I was at the hospital and he was sitting in a chair and we were talking about old times and all the good times we had many, many years ago, that we’d go out and jam and so forth. And a priest walks in and as soon as the priest walks in the room there is a fly and the priest says, “Oh, you have a fly in your room.” And Les says, “He wasn’t there till you walked in.” The priest didn’t think it was funny at all and he turned around and walked out. That was funny and everybody really broke up on it.
It was packed Monday night [at Les’s Iridium tribute]. Steve Miller was there. He sang “Nature Boy” and “God Bless the Child”. Les loved those songs. Steve was Les’s godchild and his mom and dad stood up for Les Paul and Mary Ford. They were their best man and maid of honor. So he came Monday night and we did “How High the Moon” and every time I’d think “Here’s where he comes in.” tears came to my eyes. I kept saying, “God bless you Les.” He was a great, great, great musician and a great friend. I learned a lot from him, and I think, every musician that worked with him has learned something from him and they will in the future too.
Nicki Parrott, Les’s bassist for his last decade: After doing a couple of Monday nights at the Iridium, since Les Paul passed away, it’s not the same without him at all. He is terribly missed up there. He had a big impact on my life. I was very lucky to know him for nine years. He was always very encouraging and very nice to me and gave me good advice about the sound production and playing. And he did it in a nice way. He wanted you to figure it out your own way; but if he felt strongly about something he would say it. Generally he was right with his suggestions, so I respected his good advice. It was a great time with him and he is definitely missed. He had his sense of humor right up to the end and that is what I miss most about him. He’d make me laugh. He would always surprise me with a line. He was very quick and liked to have the last say. There were times when guests would come up and I’d think that the guest would have the last say, but Les would always have a comeback. He loved the old style of entertainment, like Johnny Carson. He loved Johnny Carson and I think that’s who he emulated in his show.
It’s important to remember that Les’s memory will be kept alive by the tributes on Monday night at the Iridium.
© 2009 Jersey Jazz Journal/The New Jersey Jazz Society (www.njjs.org).
Reprinted with permission.