Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul (1915-2009)

A younger Zak Claxton (far right) meets one of his idols, Les Paul (middle left) in New York, 1997.

Here's something that should put Les Paul's contribution to music in perspective: nothing you'd hear on the radio today would sound the same if it wasn't for Les. Here's why.

Les invented multitrack recording, or, as he called it at the time, "sound-on-sound". For the layman, that means the ability to record individual parts of a song at a time, as opposed to recording all music live as it happens. In other words, nearly every song you've heard from the early 1960s on was recorded in this manner. Without Les, you might be still listening to live recordings of big bands, like they did in the '40s and '50s.

But wait. Les also invented something called the solid-body electric guitar. Without that little innovation, it's likely we'd never have had something called rock music. No Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Neil Young, no Van Halen, no Who. No rock. Think about it.

Even if you curtail his contributions to that of his namesake guitar, the Gibson Les Paul, there are countless classic songs that were recorded and performed on that particular instrument.

But I have something that most people don't: memories of meeting and hanging out with Les on a few occasions. In my previous life (before becoming a rock star in my own mind), I worked in the music/audio business, and often had to attend trade shows for the industry. At one such show, I was standing in my booth when a little old man came walking toward me. I recognized him instantly; in the world of pro audio, his face was as iconic as that of Michael Jackson's was to the world of pop music. The company I worked for at the time made a very popular digital multitrack recorder called the ADAT. We'd been very successful with the product.

Les stopped at the reception desk and asked for the company's artist relations guy, and was directed toward me. He walked up to me, still very spry for a guy who was 82 at the time, and said, "Tell me what this machine does."

I explained to him that it was a digital multitrack recorder.

"Multitrack?" he asked. "Sound on sound?"

"That's right, Mr. Paul," I agreed.

"I invented that, you know," he said.

"I'm well aware of that, sir," I offered.

"Have you sold many of them?"

"Well, yeah," I replied. "About a hundred thousand of them."

"A hundred thousand?!?!" he said incredulously, with a gleam in his eye. "You owe me a lot of money!" he exclaimed, and then cackled loudly for a long time. We both laughed together, actually; his laugh was infectious. A few moments later, we were ambushed by other company executives, who gathered around to take a pic with Les like we were little groupies as opposed to music industry businessmen. That's the photo above.

On several subsequent occasions, I'd run into Les, and he was always a very nice (and usually hilariously funny) man. He would remember my name even if it had been a couple years since we'd spoken. As I'd stand there with this little old guy, my mind would reel a bit. He'd make people around him so comfortable, they'd tend to forget that without Les, there might very well be no music industry.

Right up through the end, Les continued to play music, usually on Monday nights at a club called Iridium in New York. And amazingly, despite his age and the accompanying physical problems, he continued to sound like the great player he was, all the way into his nineties.

For any of us who record music, or play an electric guitar, or love music in any form, please take a moment to thank Les Paul for everything he did to make it happen. Personally, I'll be using a Les Paul guitar to record this weekend, and you can bet your ass that I'll be doing a few licks in his name.

Rest in peace.

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