Oct 04, 2009 Kinloch Nelson Uncategorized
Les Paul’s inventions, the Les Paul electric guitar and multitrack recorder are with us today and will long be remembered, but his other great legacy, his music and playing style have drifted into the shadows and may well be forgotten. Ironic in a way because Les came up with these inventions in order to make great music, develop his own sound and pursue his first love: music and show business.
Les’ playing was rooted in the jazz era. A lot of his ideas come from piano players, clarinet players and other guitarists of the day, particularly Django Reinhardt whose penchant for arpeggios and speed is noticeable in Les’ guitar lines. But Les wanted his own sound, so he began to craft guitar licks nobody else was playing, developed an elegant solid body guitar, dreamed up primitive but effective multitrack recording techniques (inventing the multi track recorder along the way) all in an effort to push the envelope and make something different.
His innovations and musicianship led to a string of hit records of quirky and upbeat guitar instrumentals, unique in their sound and delivery. But, anticipating the public would tire of instrumentals he started looking for a singer, found Mary Ford, teamed up with her and eventually married her.
Les knew a good pop song when he heard it and he and Mary set out to make records that appealed to the masses.
Hence, you have songs as divergent as “How High The Moon” on the one hand and “Mocking Bird Hill” on the other. They would go on the make over 120 recordings that is if you include the Robert Hall and Reingold Beer radio commercials, and the weekly radio spots. This doesn’t count the 15-minute TV shows they did for a while in the early days of television. But as is often the way with pop fads the Paul/Ford song selections and their artistic voice and style were of an era, of a generation, and of a wave of pop culture that would pass out of favor. Luckily for them it was right around the time they ran out of steam anyway.
Folk Music, beach music, the British Music Invasion, Folk Rock and Motown would eventually push the jazzers and the pop crooners aside, and Surf Music, the instrumental music of the period, would take over where Les had left off.
These new kids on the block, would ultimately become the predominate music engine, serving the next generation of fans, record executives, fan magazines, instrument manufacturers, radio, TV, movies, pop culture and politics (“Think young Wild Thing!”). Youngsters in the boomer generation beginning to come of age simply forget all about the quirky songs from Les and Mary that were prevalent on AM radio or in roller-skating rinks in the late ’50s and early ”60s. The incredible guitar driven music legacy the Baby Boomers eventually focused on was the psychedelic era, then its aftermath: hard rock, jazz rock, Southern Rock, various forms of the blues, Country rock etc. Les Paul vanished.
Yet oddly, the Les Paul guitar, out of production at Gibson for many years, began to show up in the hands of the players of the era (Clapton, Duane Allman Dicky Betts, Keith Richards, even George Harrison). So the Les Paul guitar eventually went back into production, and the old Les Paul guitars became ridiculously expensive. Everybody wanted one. This went on for years, eventually leading to a curiosity about the man himself. Who was that masked man? For the first time in decades Les could get a gig. And so started his Monday night gigs at Fat Tuesdays and later the Iridium in NYC. Once again some folks at least began to remember and go hear him. And Les enjoyed a deserved and long laid-back comeback, teaming up at one point with Chet Atkins to put out a live-in-the-studio album now considered a classic. So what then of his legacy now that he is gone?
Les’ inventions are everywhere. The guitars, the recording gear, and sound effect gadgets dominate the music and recording industry. But where is his music? Les Paul’s guitar playing itself as an influence on the Baby Boomers, and today’s players really just isn’t there. You don’t hear it in the pop music of Baby Boomer heroes (Clapton, Hendrix, Richards, Harrison, Page, etc). Even now barely anyone is trying to play like Les.
One could argue an exception that some of the early Rockabilly guitar players and today’s country players got something from Les’ style. For example, a lot of players use echo gadgets on their guitars, so the influence of his sound can be found in the gadgetry. But his jazz guitar lines, vocabulary and quirkiness simply aren’t to be found in the mainstream. To some degree this is because they were doubled, or overdubbed at different speeds and couldn’t be replicated live by most players. But more to the point the mojo that drove Les’ guitar lines came from the man himself and from a music vibe that was on the way out due to a generational changing of the guard.
But Les did have some devotees and copiers. There were and are a few players who really set out to learn from Les, or took what he was doing to heart and built on it. I’ll mention a couple.
First up: one-hit-wonder Jorgen Ingman. This player was from Denmark, and had a big hit in 1961 with “Apache.” At least one LP calls him Denmark’s answer to Les Paul. If you play the flip side of the “Apache” 45, a song called “Echo Boogie,” you can hear the use of echo and the cascading lines of Les’ approach. It’s also multi tracked: one guy plays all the instruments. The song is a composition, so it doesn’t have the element of jazz improvisation (a hallmark of Les’ recordings), but it shows the Paul influence on a player from that period.
Secondly and quite importantly: Danny Gatton. Danny was born in 1940 and grew up on Les Paul/ Mary Ford records. Gatton set out to memorize many of Les’ solos and licks and managed to learn verbatim on one guitar things that Les played on multitracked guitars (Danny didn’t know about multitracking at the time). Danny, now deceased, was and is a player’s player whose adaptations of Les’ work can be heard in a lot of today’s prominent country guitar players’ vocabularies.
At some point, one may read about Les’ “Les Paulverizer,” a tape-recorder remote control box that Les used, sometimes mounted on his guitar to do various studio tricks while playing. It functioned like today’s loop machines. Again Les was there first. Danny built one of these way back in 1977 and made great use of it at gigs and in the studio, much to Les’ delight. Danny would often quote from Les at live gigs, and on studio albums. He even did a Les Paul/Mary Ford style recording with a female singer handling multitrack vocals, like Mary Ford did all those years ago. Les loved the recording, and asked “who was the singer?”. If you look around you’ll probably find a few other great players out there who took what Les did and built on it. But most of them like Danny, and like Les himself are below the radar of public music awareness.
So where do we go from here? Back in the early 1990s a 4-CD box set was released containing the 120 recordings of Les and Mary’s songs, instrumentals, radio shows and commercial jingles. It’s been out of print for quite a while but with Les’ passing there may be a re-release.
But if you can’t find any of these or the original recordings there is always Youtube. A number of the 10 or 15 minute TV shows Les and Mary did in the early days of black and white TV can be found on Youtube. It’s classic stuff. These were really short visits with Les and Mary in their home where something domestic would happen for a couple minutes and then they would break into song (prerecorded and over dubbed), then there would be a commercial, then a quick goodbye from L & M.
One could argue that Les and Mary might have been the first popular guitar players (Mary played too) to make routine music videos. The Beatles have claimed this distinction but the truth is Les and Mary were there first. I think these even predate Ricky Nelson playing the guitar as part of the Ozzie and Harriet TV show.
Sometimes what goes around does come around. These days there is a huge resurgence in interest in Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz music. Maybe the same thing will happen with Les Paul. Gypsy jazz bands are popping up all over. They are even in the movies and on TV.
Somewhere in my record collection is an LP of Django Reinhardt being backed up by a combo of guitars orchestrated like a horn section, all playing in harmony along with solo tracks Django had made years before with another band. Django’s guitar is isolated on one track and this whole new guitar section is surrounding him in harmony years later. It’s a wonderful example of orchestrated guitars playing along with improvised guitar lines. And this is exactly what Les was doing all along: improvising a line and then playing harmony or counterpoint along with it.
Maybe the next big wave will be guitar orchestras playing Les Paul music, note for note from the old recordings; or better yet new compositions the way Les would have done them. All you would need then is an orchestra of Mary Fords. Until then, at least we’ve got all those wonderful recordings.
Kinloch Nelson is a member of the Guitar League. At 58 years old, he has been a guitar player since he can remember when, and has been a professional guitar player since circa 1973. He taught at Hochstein Music School in Rochester for 25 years, built electric guitars from time to time, even as a kid, and is now concentrating on life as a solo acoustic guitar player. Reach Nelson at kinlochnelson.com.