Les Paul holding a copy of Maximum Ink backstage at the Iridium Jazz club in New York City
photo by Otto Schamberger
‘Upgrade’ is a fairly new term in today’s society, yet it has sparked an international obsession. We need our internet faster, our cars bigger, our celebrities skinnier, and our televisions more…defined? Well listen up, Generation Next, because the man responsible for the original upgrade worked for it… Without the cheat codes.
There is no doubt Les Paul is a living legend of the twenty-first century. He not only invented the first electric guitar, but revolutionized the music industry with countless recording breakthroughs. Les Paul has played for kings, queens and presidents, and is revered by musical titans throughout the world. But one Monday night, on the busiest and brightest street in New York City, this legend sat on a moth-eaten, dusty couch, alone in a cramped dressing room, just a door-swing away from his audience.
A chill ran up my spine. I tried to imagine all the influential people that had gazed into those misty blue eyes, as I was doing. Every inch of his face was brimming with eagerness to talk about the past, perhaps wondering which stories I would conjure. He gently twisted the top of his cane as his eyes darted around before settling on an object across the room, and then back at me:
MAXIMUM INK: What inspired you to become involved with the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music and Launchpad?
LES PAUL: Well, the most important thing is supporting music; some of the best places where original music comes from are unknown high school bands.
MAXIMUM INK: Many would say that you were the first American garage band.
LES PAUL: [Laughing] I guess you could say that. I have been making music ever since I first heard sounds. When I was a teenager, I was in a few small bands. I remember when I first went on the road with the Cowboys. I was about 14 and was down South; it was the first time I’d been away from my home in Waukesha; needless to say, the longest time, too. All the other guys were in their twenties. Some nights I would stay up late and sit on the front steps outside the motel we’d be staying at and just cry. It was lonely out there for me as a kid, I missed my mother.
MAXIMUM INK: Was your mother supportive of your musical endeavors at such a young age?
LES PAUL: Oh, yes. She was musical herself. My mother was always singing in the house; sometimes she played her piano, as well. One thing my mother and I share is our strong sense of curiosity. When I started to get involved in music, playing the banjo and harmonica, she never doubted me, never held me back. She always told me to follow my dreams, so I did.
MAXIMUM INK: So was it your curiosity or sheer dissatisfaction that created the electric guitar?
LES PAUL: Can’t have one without the other [laughing]. It was the mid 1930s when I really started to become frustrated with the sound of my guitars. From the stage, people just couldn’t hear the music! One of the first experiments I did was lay a string across the rails of a train track and saw the vibrations increase as the train got closer. Eventually I came up with “the log,” which was pretty much just a log with strings. But my main goal was to solve the two problems that guitars had back then: feedback and sustain.
MAXIMUM INK: Did you experiment with multi-track recording the same way you experimented to invent the electric guitar?
LES PAUL: Not exactly. While trying new ideas and seeing the results is something I have always enjoyed doing, just for fun even, multi-track recording wouldn’t have been possible if it had not been for Bing Crosby. During World War II I did a lot of work with my radio program for the soldiers, and after the war, Bing sent me these new types of tapes. They were German tapes, unlike anything we had in the States. They were more advanced, better quality. So I used Bing’s tapes to record one instrument at a time to hone the sound. And when I laid the tracks on top of one another, the rest is history.
MAXIMUM INK: Speaking of World War II, you had the opportunity to play for President Roosevelt.
LES PAUL: I was invited to play at the White House for President Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, and their children. This was in 1939, before the United States had entered the war; it was a whole different era in terms of music, because the war changed everything. Anyway, I went down to Washington, and the first thing I asked the President was, ‘What’s your favorite song?’
MAXIMUM INK: If you could relive any moment in your past, would this be the one you would choose?
LES PAUL: It’s difficult to say what moment I would relive out of all the incredible adventures and honors I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in over the years. I think what I’ve learned is that you have to enjoy the people the most, because they are the memories that outlast any mere moment. So I would have to say that I would relive Bing’s [Crosby] funeral if I could, and having the chance to say goodbye to him. He was a great friend and musician, and I miss him to this day.
MAXIMUM INK: When people address you as a legend, what goes through your mind? How do you let a title like that sink in, at least while maintaining your humility?
LES PAUL: That’s the trick I guess [smiling]. To me, though, I don’t necessarily define myself as a ‘legend’ just because it’s what newspapers call me. Instead, I’ve had the pleasure of making friends with and meeting some fine musicians whose acquaintances I hold dearer than any title. I think the most meaningful compliment I’ve ever received came from Paul McCartney awhile back, when the Beatles were still around. He told me, “You know, Les, if it hadn’t been for you, Beatles wouldn’t exist.” And that was special to me, because I really liked Beatles. But come to think of it, Elvis Presley told me the same thing at one point.
MAXIMUM INK: I believe it was Keith Richards who once said, “If it hadn’t been for Les Paul, all of us rock and rollers would either be cleaning toilets, or in prison.”
LES PAUL: [Laughing] Oh, Keith. Over the years, since I started playing the Iridium down here, he will walk in to catch a show and to say hello when he’s in town. He’s a character; he hasn’t changed a bit.
MAXIMUM INK: If there is anyone who could coast on his reputation a bit, you’re more than qualified. What keeps you coming back to the Iridium week after week?
LES PAUL: Playing in this little jazz club here on Broadway has given me more enjoyment and pleasure than anything I’ve done in years. I look forward to every Monday, it’s my favorite day of the week. I love getting up there and having a good time with the audience, laughing and playing music. I also get to see a lot of my friends here in New York, people come in to say hello every now and then. Every week is just exciting. I’ve been playing the Iridium regularly for over ten, fifteen years, and every time, I discover and rediscover things about music and playing the guitar all the time. When I play for the crowds in New York, it’s about evoking emotions through the strings of a guitar, and every night is different, depending on what emotions my guitar is feeling on any given Monday [smiling].
MAXIMUM INK: Still, I understand that you work about twenty hours a day, archiving all of your records for your personal files and museums, like the new Smithsonian exhibit in which you are featured.
LES PAUL: Yes, well, there is quite a lot to be documented. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions [laughing] of recordings, documents, and files that need to be saved and officially documented. I stay up most of the hours in the day and I’m not even through a fraction of the work. At this point, if I could have anything in the world, I would choose a small house with no possessions, just my guitar. Humans consume so many materials, it’s become second-nature to us; if I could have anything, it would be no materials. That would make it easier to focus on what’s really important in life, your passions and the people you love.