Maker of guitars and guitar history, Les Paul is still playing and tinkering

January 23, 1992|By David Hinckley | David Hinckley,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- Call them lean Mondays at Fat Tuesday's.

As he has every Monday night since, oh, since way back before the recession, Les Paul takes the stage down at 190 Third Ave. for a couple of sets of spare, clean string music. He's got his guitar, he's got a bass man, and he's got a second guitarist who does a few vocals.

These days, he's also got something that for Les Paul sounds impossible: He's got more history behind him.

Les Paul, born Lester Pohlfuss in Waukesha, Wis., on June 9, 1915, is the kind of figure for whom one usually just describes the major accomplishments, because the rest would take all day.

To name just two things that changed the course of recorded music history, there are these: In 1941, he built the first solid-body electric guitar with a pickup. Later in the '40s, he developed multi-track recording, on a huge machine that is taller than he is and today still sits in the living room of his Mahwah, N.J., home.

Well, he calls it a living room. Actually, it's an electronics museum, tracing much of the history of modern recording technology. He can identify each item -- "That's an experimental recorder from the late '50s" -- and some of them are tagged for destinations, like the Smithsonian.

"Gotta clean this place up," he says. One room is knee-deep in trophies, plaques, awards, etc. The bedroom contains a hundred or so guitars.

And don't suggest throwing anything out. It seems clear that if an item has even a chance of being useful in some future project, Les Paul will not throw it out. The areas he keeps clear are the recording studios and the kitchen, which he uses as a kind of headquarters.

He lingers over the old multi-track. That's where he would record and then overdub his guitar with the voice of his wife and singing partner Mary Ford. The result was a string of wonderfully light, infectious pop classics -- "How High the Moon," "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," etc. -- which had a depth not possible from single-track recording.

Of all the songs the duo recorded, however, it turns out that many were never released, and that's where the new piece of Les Paul history unfolds. Capitol Records has released a four-CD Les Paul set, 168 tracks in all, from the hits to the commercials. Dozens of tracks had never before been available.

"I kept 'em in my house," says Paul. "I just wasn't sure I wanted to give 'em up until I was sure they'd do the right thing with 'em. But this is OK. Now maybe I'll give 'em some more."

The unreleased Paul tracks, not surprisingly, are similar in style to his better known material: some jazz, pop, country, a lot of melody and a buoyant attitude.

Perhaps because he's so revered as an electronics genius, Paul is often underrated as a performer.

The Fat Tuesday's shows suggest that at 76, Paul has not lost his touch. Although arthritis has frozen enough of his picking hand that he literally jams the pick in between two fingers, he can get the notes he wants. He and the band will run through a half-dozen songs, jamming here and there, before coming back to "How High the Moon" or other standard favorites.

Between sets, he wanders over to the bar for a beer and to chat with whomever is around. He answers questions, but he asks them, too, and this habit probably best explains Les Paul.

At his home, a visitor is struck by the piles of trade publications from, for instance, the rubber industry. He explains these simply by saying he can never learn enough about the way things work -- and that it's his knowledge in these seemingly non-musical areas that have enabled him, for instance, to figure out the best material for guitar strings -- and why.

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