Les Paul

I’m late out of the starting blocks in every way with Les Paul, whose death at the age of 94 on August 13th happened when I was out of computer contact. If I had to pick a musician to represent the twentieth century, at least in the West, I’d go for either Les Paul or Miles Davis. I’m just the wrong age to have caught on to Les Paul, and I am also of the generation which only caught up with Davis when he was at the Bitches Brew stage. According to Paul, Davis once asked him why he (Davis) never had hit records like Paul. ‘Just play the melody,’ said Paul, not a little wickedly, when you consider he was dealing with the man who really popularised atonal jazz. However, even Davis owed something to Les Paul: the art of editing music (since Bitches Brew in its original form is not a performance but a heavily edited and over-dubbed amalgamation of a series of performances).

I know I’ve written about Les Paul before, but he’s worth writing about again. Nobody in the twentieth century played with such diverse players, or in so many styles. He played with blues singers like Georgia White in the thirties; he played with Bing Crosby; he played with the Andrews Sisters; he played with Charlie Christian; he played with Django Reinhardt; he played with Chet Atkins (an astonishing return from the wilderness with the 1970s album Chester and Lester); he played with rock guitarists like Steve Miller (whose godfather he was), and Jeff Beck (who freely admitted stealing licks from him – and if you listen to early Beck records like Rock My Plimsoul, preferably the single version, you can hear it). And of course, he hit the popular charts in the early 1950s with his second wife, Mary Ford (the pseudonym of Colleen Summers).

What this means, incredibly, was that he had an influence not only on jazz, but also on blues, country and western, rock, and the kind of popular sentimental crooning beloved of the forties and fifties. It wasn’t just that he was a crossover player, and adept and influential in many genres, either. What he did was to push the frontiers of recording, using very primitive equipment, so that multi-tracking became the norm. He also really made the electric guitar what it is at its best – supple, edgy, surprising, bending the notes in a way that is all the more fantastic when you think he broke his arm in the forties, and had it re-set crookedly so that he could still handle a guitar.

I’ve almost always had a copy of ‘How High The Moon’, his 1952 hit with Mary Ford, on a K-Tel-ish sort of compilation I bought when I was eighteen. I missed out on what must have been the amazing how-did-he-do-that thrill that musicians must have had when they first heard his layered recordings (there are, according to a TV interview he gave in the 1950s, 12 guitar tracks on ‘How High The Moon’, and 12 vocal tracks, although there is a bass and some faint percussion in the mix, and I’m not sure where they count).

But I’m no musician: frustrating if you want to describe a song. What he packs into ‘How High The Moon’ (which I carry around on a portable movie camera) and it’s 2 minutes and 8 seconds must rank as the first real rock and roll record, even if the vocals are too sweet for that definition (alternatively, you could pick his Guitar Boogie from the late 1940s). After racing through the intro in seven seconds, the twelve Mary Fords cut in and sing ‘Somewhere there’s music, how faint the tune. Somewhere there’s heaven: how high the moon…’. After two verses, and at about 39 seconds in, Paul bends a note up through the fade of Ford’s voice, and sets off on a solo which in thirty seconds defines the way James Burton, Buddy Holly, Keith Richard, and even Jimi Hendrix will play. At this point, the multiple Mary Fords soar upwards, out of which Paul, who has been playing on and off the beat, re-emerges with more solo (this alone is completely out of the ordinary for its time). For the last thirty seconds, Ford sings in her down-home, downbeat way, almost endearingly expressionless, while Paul strums like a fury beneath her, adding a little tweak by moving his finger right up the fretboard and off the end, and adding a coda which seems to say ‘You see? You see?’

I must have listened to it forty times. This week, I mean.

Here he is on a song Carl Perkins and later George Harrison loved to play.


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