The Original Guitar God

New Jersey Monthly
August 2000

Les Paul doesn’t just hold his guitar, he wraps himself around it, one foot bouncing against the leg of his stool, a wad of gum wedged between his teeth. He could be your grandpa—a hipped-up version—with faded blue jeans that drape over his skinny knees- The harsh stage lights make his skin look white and papery. He hasn’t even bothered yet to take off his parka. On a Monday night in early spring, it’s still chilly inside Iridium, the swanky Manhattan club across the street from Lincoln Center. At only 6 PM the room looks naked and ordinary, the tables undressed. Most of the busboys would rather watch the band run its sound check than arrange salad forks. At first, all you hear is noise—stray plinks on the guitar, feedback, and Les Paul calling out orders. The sound is “too thin, too thin,” he says. “There are too many highs.” Then a measure of “Misty” creeps in. Then a sliver of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and a hint of “Caravan.” And suddenly, under the low orange ceiling, the underground space takes on the pulse of a jazz club.

Paul has been commuting from his home in Mahwah once a week for more than four years, and by now he owns Monday nights at Iridium. More than that, he owns the audience, a diverse crowd ranging from Chinese tourists to middle-aged stockbrokers to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who, rumor has it, plans to drop in tonight. By 7 PM, a handful of people hover near the doorway, a cluster of spaghetti-strap dresses and jeans and wrinkled office clothes. The funny thing is, for every Les Paul groupie in line, there’s an equally passionate stray who knows nothing about Paul except “wasn’t there a guitar named after him?”

For someone who’s played the White House (for FDR and Eisenhower), sold Listerine and Coors on TV, and, yes, does have his name printed on millions of Gibson guitars, it’s curiously difficult to nail down exactly who this guy is. That’s partly because those who knew him when just aren’t around anymore. He’s outlived most of the people he’s played with—Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, his longtime partner and wife, Mary Ford—and played for.

But it’s more than that: Les Paul, born Lester William Polfus in Wisconsin in 1915, simply has done so much that you can’t pigeonhole him. Part inventor, he grew up taking apart the phonograph, piano, and telephone in his family’s living room. Music buffs know him for the famous “Log,” circa 1941, an early solid-body electric guitar that looked like an odd, souped-up wooden beam before he attached two wings to the sides, giving the instrument credibility. Part musician, he bought his first guitar—a Troubador flat-top acoustic—for $4.50 at age twelve. Part entertainer, he hammed it up at local venues and radio stations under the names Red Hot Red and, later, Les Paul, constantly dreaming up ways to beef up the role of the guitar and drag it out of the background of American music. Even in 1947, the night he tiptoed through the smoky back room of a party and slipped his recording of “Lover” into the record player for a handful of tipsy showbiz types, Les Paul was going for the reaction—and he got it. The tune’s combination of echoes, reverbs, and impossibly high pitches sounded vaguely sci-fi, thrilling an audience who probably thought they’d seen and heard everything.

“I put the record on,” Paul remembers, “and Artie Shaw says, ‘What in the world is that?’ It was entirely different, and it had never been created before. The sound just wasn’t normal.” Or, in record company lingo, it was “The New Sound!” The technique was revolutionary, culled from years of tinkering with amps, sound mixers, and multiple guitars. And it allowed Paul to perform every single one of the voice and instrument parts himself by recording them on separate tracks.

Technical talk aside, Paul plainly admits that he wanted to see jaws drop that night. If Artie Shaw had wrinkled his nose instead of embracing the recording, “I’d have junked the whole thing and tried again,” he says, “or I’d have gone back and fixed it. But I was so sure that this would work, I never asked ‘what if?’”

His résumé goes on from there, of course. It’s peppered with things like the synthesizer he designed—but never built—in 1948; his partnership with Gibson, which started pumping out those famous Les Paul guitars in 1952; and his move that same year from California to New Jersey, where he and his wife shot The Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home Show, giving millions of TV viewers a glimpse of the couple’s back porch in Mahwah. There was his invention of the eight-track tape deck, his concerts at Carnegie Hall, and the year he retired from performing only to reemerge ten years later. There were his jazz gigs at Fat Tuesdays in downtown Manhattan and later, his move uptown to Indium.

It would be enough to make most 85-year-old guys sort of weary. And if you prod him, he’ll admit the years have taken their toll. Though he keeps quiet about the 1948 car crash that partially paralyzed his right hand, he’ll tell you about the arthritis in his fingers, the hearing aids in both ears, and his quintuple-bypass surgery twenty years ago. But what Les Paul won’t tell you is that he’s tired—because he’s not. Performing, he insists, is “therapy.” You notice it the second he’s anywhere near a stage or a soundboard. It must be a Pavlovian response by now; just the sound of the waiters’ clanking clean wine glasses together says “we’re going to have a crowd tonight—a loud, festive crowd.” During the sound check, he hops like an eight-year-old off his stool to an amp, then back to his perch, futzing with knobs and strings until the tone is round and plump. Bassist Paul Nowinski, who also plays Monday nights, refers to Paul as “a kid.” The performer’s longtime friend and sound engineer, Tom Doyle, makes references to Paul’s “childlike antics.” Jackson, Iridium’s creative director—like Cher, he goes by a single moniker—always keeps a watchful eye on Paul. even as he hustles around the club, making nice with customers and whispering occasional orders to the waitstaff. “I get him offstage at 2 AM,” Jackson explains. “I say, ‘Les, it’s time to go.’” It’s easy to read into these comments that Les Paul is getting flighty as he moves toward his tenth decade. Nearly every show has a moment when it looks as if the action is happening around Paul, who at times seems bewildered by the crowd in front of him. After all, this is just a guy from Mahwah who plays music for his neighbors and looks forward to Sundays, when he can hop into his car and escape into New York State or maybe South Jersey—anywhere he can see horses and cows.

Back at Iridium, things get a little rowdy when Keith Richards does, in fact, drop in. Onstage, Richards ad-libs his way through a bluesy tune with a memorable refrain: “I’ve got a cold pork chop/Don’t you wanna come and pick on it?” Looking all of his 56 years—and then some—Richards returns to his table with all eyes, all cameras, and all smiles on him. He owns the room—until Les Paul barks through the chaos, “It sounds like a goddamned saloon in here!”

But Paul isn’t really upset. He knows he never lost his audience to begin with, because this is how you keep them. Weeks later, he insists that the show wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. “Every week is different,” he says. “Next week will probably be full of surprises too. You just go with it.”

It all sounds so easy, like the way he casually compares the birth of his revolutionary New Sound back in the late 1940s to “finding the right parking place at Shop-Rite.” It’s no big deal, he says. “I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew something was missing from music, and I warned to fill up that hole.”

Les Paul knows that he’s considered a legend in some circles, but he thinks the term is silly. “What’s a legend anyway?” he asks. And the question hangs in the air: Is this an act too? Could this guy honestly not know how cool he is?

Of course he knows. In his next breath, Paul will tell you about famous musicians, like Eric Clapton, who’ve been touched by him. He’ll describe shows at which fans actually cried (“I’d say it happens once a month”). Strangers have called him at home, he says, just to have a conversation with him. Some have even rung his doorbell in Mahwah, where musical equipment, both intact and in pieces, spills out of his studio and into every room of the house. There’s something about Paul that makes people want to tell him about their guitar lessons or the first time they heard “Lover” on a jukebox somewhere. But Paul guards his home life with great care, declining repeated entreaties to interview him there. The house is said to be rigged up with so much musical equipment that he can sit down in any room, pick up an instrument, and start recording.

All this is old news to anyone who’s spent fifteen minutes with the performer. It’s Paul’s relationship with the audience that’s truly legendary. He often lingers in the club after the sound check. Sneak inside, and instead of his dismissing you with a polite wave, he’ll probably pull up a bar stool, rest his chin in his hand, and listen, studying your eyes and lips. He says he does that because he can’t hear like he used to, but you suspect he’s being coy. Whether it’s the tilt of your head, a barely raised eyebrow, or a muffled giggle, you get the feeling that Les Paul is not missing anything.