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Visit with Les Paul

Published Early Spring 2008 edition of Events Magazine
by Wayne D'Amico

On January 28, 2008, I found myself in Manhattan for a couple of business meetings requiring a one night stay in the City.  Having spent my college years in Greenwich Village at NYU, I cherish the opportunities to avoid the trip back to CT to indulge an evening of bright lights in the Big City.  For the last couple years I have taken particular note of these New York excursions when they include a Monday night.  That's because Monday night is the one night of every week that Les Paul plays at the Iridium Jazz Club on 51st and Broadway.

An evening of good music never mind great Jazz is hard enough to find anymore, let alone on a Monday night.  But to those who know, this less than 180 person basement jazz club is just the latest venue to be home to this standing weekly New York City performance started more than 30 year ago.  This period only catching the twilight of a legendary career begun yet 40 years prior to that.  If your following the math,  I'm talking about a man who can claim successes in the music business dating back to the 1930's and he's still performing every week.

Born Lester William Polfus, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, June 9, 1915, Les Paul began performing semi-professionally as a harmonica playing country guitarist at the age of 13.  Each decade to follow through the 1950's, Paul, an avid inventor with an insatiable desire to "know how things tick",  conceived and engineered various recording techniques and related equipment to improve his ability to enhance his unique musical sound, further advancing his career.  Such things we take for granted today like "sound on sound" or over dubbing, multi-track recording, echo and reverb and one of the first solid body electric guitars were all invented and many patented by this one man.  

Coming out of the 1940's with a booming recording career in the jazz-pop arena, Paul teamed up with his soon to be wife, Mary Ford to blast into the 1950's with such #1 hits as "How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios" both captured on his self developed pioneering recording gear.  In the 1952, after being ignored only a couple years prior, the Gibson guitar company enlisted Paul to perfect his initial concepts for a solid body electric guitar to compete with the upstart Leo Fender in Fullerton, California.  The results of this joint venture is the legacy that is the Gibson Les Paul Guitar, the most successful and recognizable guitar icon in music today.   Originally developed in an era of Jazz, this guitar's true commercial success has ironically been from its preferred tonality for Rock and Roll starting in the 1960's with such Rock icons as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page through to today.

Accompanied by the much junior rhythm guitar of 72 year old Lou Pallo, John Colianni on piano and the sensational Nicki Parrot on stand up Bass, Les Paul at 92 still plays with chops I have given up hoping for.  Sure his visibly arthritic hands are not quite as sharp as in his prime over 50 years ago,  but he unquestionably deserves my utmost respect and admiration.  After treking in from his home in Mahwah, New Jersey, the 10PM show is his second of the night.  The 2 hour performance of embellishing jazz standards many first performed by him over 60 years ago, Les takes time to share anecdotes of his remarkable past, reveals a sharp whit, spotlights the enormous talent of his band mates and even shares his stage with budding young talent that find there way to the stage to play with the band.

I've become addicted to capitalizing on every chance I have to catch this show.  Part of me certainly enjoys the true "getaway" from a hectic life of dawn to dusk career and family obligations, but in my gut I think it is more profound.  Too often we forget the enormous contribution our senior population has made, without which life as we experience it today would simply not be the same.   To so many this show is just an old man playing old music, but for me, I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to hear his music, listen to his stories, laugh at his jokes and best of all, shake his hand and just say "Thank you".   So sad will be the day when I should have to find something else to do on a Monday night in Manhattan.  Vaya Con Dios!

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Wayne D'Amico, based in Essex CT,  has been a working musician and musical entertainer for over 25 years and hosts, a website for Guitar and professional musical gear enthusiasts.

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