A Legend And Innovator

Guitarist And Inventor Les Paul Was Unfailingly Gracious As He Inspired Generations

August 19, 2009|By Lorraine L. Whittlesey

Guitar master Les Paul's innovation and technical proficiency are well known, but the man who was dubbed "The Father of the Electric Guitar," "The Wizard of Waukesha," and "The Ancestor of Guitar Gods" was also a true gentleman. Volumes have been written about his numerous accomplishments since his death last week, but here's a story about one special day 13 years ago.

On June 17, 1996, guitar legends Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Roger McGuinn and Scotty Moore, among others, arrived at the New York Jazz Club, Iridium. They came to pay tribute to, and possibly perform with, the person who lent his name to the guitars they played. It was the 81st birthday of Les Paul, the most celebrated living legend of them all.

It was a double celebration, since Les was also being honored by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (known primarily for the Grammy awards).

As a member of the Recording Academy, and friend of Les, it was my great honor to represent Michael Greene, then president of the Academy. A unique citation was created in which Les was acknowledged for his numerous contributions to the advancement of electronics in the music world, and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first solid body guitar he introduced to Gibson.

My friendship with Les began in the 1980s when he was gigging at a downtown club called Fat Tuesday's with the Les Paul Trio. My friends and I made a point to go there when our schedules would permit, and Les and his sidemen, Lou Pallo on guitar and Nicki Parrott on bass, were always in fine form.

He was the perfect gentleman, always accessible to his fans and friends during his breaks. As is often the case with celebrities, it seemed as if he was more appreciated by out-of-towners than by the locals. Frequently, I would be asked to take a photo of him with a visitor from Japan, or some other admirer who had made a special trek just to hear and meet with Les Paul.

We continued to stay in touch after I moved to Baltimore in the early '90s, and when I became involved with the Computer Music Department at the Peabody Conservatory, I would invite guest lecturers. Unfortunately, my efforts to persuade Les to come to Baltimore were not so successful, as he was very active as a performer in New York.

That Monday night, at Iridium, Les performed two sets for family, friends and audiences who had lined up around the block to get in the door. Rumors ran rampant as to who would be performing onstage with him. Supposedly, certain famous guitar players were turned away after the fire marshal declared the premises beyond capacity.

In addition to his usual band members, the esteemed Louisiana native and bluesman Brown (who died in 2005) joined Les for a memorable session of trading lick for lick to the delight of the enthralled audience.

Next up was McGuinn, frontman and co-founder of The Byrds. He jammed a bit with Les, but when McGuinn launched into a medley of Byrds repertoire, Les left the stage and had himself a beer.

Moore, Elvis Presley's primary guitarist for 14 years, was also in the audience. He had flown in especially for the birthday celebration but was a bit reluctant to get onstage since he had been "celebrating" in the truest sense. Eventually, he was persuaded, and for the audience, it was the highlight of the evening.

Despite his advanced years, and bouts with health issues, Les Paul maintained his unique sound and will be remembered by generations of music lovers.

Lorraine L. Whittlesey is a composer, performer and producer living in Baltimore. Her e-mail is privatesector@verizon.net.

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