Universal Truth #3 - We can all learn from Les Paul

As I was coming back from my vacation in Alberta, I was saddened to learn of the passing of legendary guitarist and inventor Les Paul. It’s safe to say that no single man in the history of modern music has had a bigger influence than Les. His music crossed the genres of jazz, country and pop and also had a great influence on rock and roll. His inventions, which included the solid body electric guitar (like the two Les Paul models seen above) and multi-track recording made much of the music from the 1950s to the present possible. To really appreciate Les you should check out the PBS documentary Les Paul Chasing Sound

Les was a man who constantly reinvented himself. Starting out as a country star called Rhubarb Red, he started playing jazz as a hobby in Chicago and eventually moved to New York to be part of the jazz scene there - forming the Les Paul Trio, and working with numerous band leaders including the great Bing Crosby. Moving to Los Angeles he eventually met and married vocalist Mary Ford with whom he had amazing string of hit records as well as television show sponsored by Listerin. Here's a short episode. Check out his his lead break starting at the 1:05 mark. Possibly the greatest guitar solo ever. Wow.

In a business where it is considered suicide to be out of the public eye, Les did more than his share of disappearing from the limelight then coming back stronger than ever. At the top of the jazz game and tired of being constantly imitated by other guitarists Les left the New York club scene for over a year, working on his inventions and coming up with totally new sounds that he was able to get with multi-tracking. He came back more popular than ever.

Then there was the car accident that left his right arm in a cast for over a year. Thankfully he had the doctor set his arm in a way where he could still sit and play guitar. In the late 1960s he disappeared again for more than a dozen years before making an award-winning album with Chet Atkins which was recorded in less than a day.

He also won a Grammy in 2006 at the age of 90. In his waning years he played two sets every Monday night at the tiny Iridium jazz club in New York. Even in his 90s, he knew how to put on a show that made every single patron leave with a big smile on their face.
I was lucky enough to see him twice in that tiny club. The first time, we were surrounded by audio engineers who were in NY for a conference. Believe me, every one of them knew that their jobs had been shaped by this little old man and his inventions. The second time we went, my girlfriend Susan and I were right at the front of the stage. She did this sketch.

Those two shows were among the most memorable concert experiences in my life. Listening to Les crack jokes and tell wonderful stories while his arthritic 93 year old hands played impossible melodies made you feel that everything was right in the world. Blessed with perfect pitch and a brilliant mind, he never wasted a single bit of his potential and everything he gave to music he got back tenfold in success and enjoyment. He was humble, but confident. He worked hard and took chances and was rewarded for his efforts. Most of all he seemed to love the world and his place in it.
We may not all have his talent, but we can certainly learn from his determination and love of life.
You brought a lot to the table Les. We'll all miss you. And say hi to Mary for us too.

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