A Visit With The Wizard.
last night as I sat in the cool grass clacking two coconut
shells together while some of the elder tribesmen danced
slowly around the bonfire I gazed up at the stars and
couldn’t help but wonder: is it possible there could be
another world not unlike ours, a world where people
like us might stick something into a hole in the wall
and cause little glowing lights to blink on and off like
fireflies, a place where someone could turn a knob on
a box of some sort and fill the air with great marvelous
clouds of sound, sounds unlike anything the human ear
had ever heard before, the sound of a giant metallic insect
grinding through the sky, the sound of an angel singing
underwater, the beautiful smoky wail of an overblown
speaker, and just as I was wondering what a speaker
might be...I woke up.
in my earliest memory of electric guitar I am 6 years old.
taking in the intense kaleidoscope of Christmas shopping
with my parents at the Newport Kentucky Shopping Mall.
the mall itself was more like a small strip mall than today’s
sprawling giants but still a fresh excitement in the mid- 1950’s.
it was snowing. little speakers in the parking lot were
repeatedly playing this jingle:
when the values go up, up, up, and the prices go down, down, down, Robert Hall this season will show you the reason, low overhead, low overhead
a snappy lyric no doubt, but it was the sound of the guitar
accompaniment that excited me. a rich creamy electric guitar
sound. turns out it was Les Paul along with Mary Ford
singing the virtues of Robert Hall clothing .
if we fast-forward a couple of decades I find myself talking
with Les in his living room in front of the same exact
Frankenstein-like laboratory of early recording gear
with which Les created his legendary sound: multi-tracking;
a technology that changed record-making forever.*
the story begins in 1983 in new york city.
I had a full day's schedule of interviews and photo shoots
ending with an interview with Guitar World magazine.
a friend of mine, bob davis worked for Guitar World.
bob invited me and my manager stan hertzman to dinner.
bob was friends with les paul, said he knew him well.
he began telling some of his favorite les paul tales
and suddenly said, "hey, why don't we drive out to les's house?"
it's about an hour drive to Mahwah, New Jersey.
we arrived at les's 27-room mansion at 8:00 at night.
surprisingly, les answered the door.
bob said, "hey les, mind if we come in for a minute?"
"aw jeez, I don't know, bob, I'm kinda busy," les said,
but he quickly added, "what the hell, come on in".
(six hours later at two in the morning we were begging
him to let us go back to the city. I had another long
day of interviews and meetings ahead of me.)
les ushered us into his large open living room.
he was alone in the house, like an absentminded wizard.
he said he was searching through old tapes of his
television show The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show.
airing in 1953, it was one of the pioneer tv shows.
in fact, les said back then they hadn't even arrived
at an agreed upon format for television.
his show was 5 minutes long!
a typical show went like this:
music theme plays (which concluded with a blazing
guitar run from the master, the only part I remember)
announcer says: "it's the les paul and mary ford show!"
mary walks out from the kitchen into the living room
wearing a fashionable 1950's outfit.
les: "whatcha doin' mary?"
mary: "I'm fixing a cake, les. I just put it in the oven."
les: "well then, why don'tcha come over here and do
a song with me while it's baking?"
they launch into one of their two minute pop hits
which somehow leads into a spot about their sponsor
Listerine and how nice it is to have fresh breath
which somehow leads into mary showing les
the magically finished cake which somehow reminds
les of another tune they should sing, which they do.
end of show.
les said they filmed the show right where we were sitting!
the large open living room decorated in 50's-style
bric-a-brac was connected to mary's kitchen
separated only by a counter top.
they filmed five shows a day for five days and
that was enough for a whole season.
the show was on every day during the week.
before the Beatles, even before Elvis,
les and mary had 11 top ten hit songs and 36 gold records.
they had a radio show as well and constantly toured
the country in les's cadillac.
les started right in to one of his fabulous stories:
"the show was broadcast live right here.
we had a film crew in here all day and we cut up
and cussed like sailor's. for our very first show
we had an MC introduce us, a nervous little fellow.
the lights went on, cameras started rollin'
he stepped up to the mic and said:
when les laughed hard enough his voice went silent
and was replaced by a kind of wheez.
we had a beer and les walked us through his house.
he showed us the cadillac flywheel he used to invent
a mastering lathe. showed us the very first electric
guitar he made. he called it "the log". it looked like one.
scattered through the house were guitar cases,
many of which had never even been opened.
les said he had probably 300 guitars laying around.
according to les he made a deal with Gibson when
they released the Les Paul that they would send him
one guitar every month for him to "inspect".
eventually we were back in the living room.
at the far end of the room there were eight recording
machines stacked one on top of another.
it was the original multi-track studio
les had created to make his records.
"pick one out," he said pointing to the guitar cases
laying everywhere. I opened a case. it had a blue
Les Paul still in its wrapper. never touched.
les motioned me over and it dawned on me:
he was asking me to play with him!
we both plugged into his console, les with one of
his "recording les paul" models and me with a
beast that was unaccustomed to ever being tuned.
eventually I played something that caught his ear
and he asked me how I did it.
bob davis spoke up, "adrian makes his guitar sound
like animals. that's what he's known for."
I saw the gleam in les's eyes as he quickly moved
back to the area where the tv tapes were.
"I gotcha now," he said and he began fumbling through
the tapes. "here it is," he said, "you know 'jingle bells'
don'tcha? everybody knows jingle bells. well, I did a
version of it we called 'jungle bells!' "
sure enough there was les playing on his tv show,
scratching the strings of his guitar to make it sound
like a monkey!!
and I thought I had invented that!
what a night it was.
the next time I saw les he was playing at the infamous
Fat Tuesdays, one of his monday night shows he did
weekly for many years despite being in his eighties.
martha and I sat right smack in front of him
up against the postage stamp-size stage,
across from us at the same table sat an elderly
couple who looked very sweet together.
les played great and cracked jokes the whole time.
suddenly he looked down at the couple next to us
and said, "I want to dedicate this to my old friend Harold,
he's sitting right down here in the front and Harold is the
fella who wrote this song back in 1925."
then he played "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."
over the years I saw les from time to time and he
was always the same: laughing and friendly.
I doubt he ever heard me play or knew anything
about my work but it didn't matter. I loved him.
in 2005 (I think) I was asked by Guitar Player
magazine to participate in an event in new york city.
it was a celebration of les paul's 90th birthday.
backstage les was sitting in the hallway chatting
with everybody. he saw me with my Parker Fly
and insisted he sign the back of it.
he wrote "Keep Rockin'. Les Paul" in silver marker.
being an idiot who is not used to having someone
autograph my guitar I didn't think to protect it
from wearing off, which it did over the next tour.
after he signed it, Lisa Loeb came by to say hello.
he grabbed her breast! laughing like a little kid.
what more can you say about the affable genius?
he was the father of electric guitar.
*this is part of the foreword I wrote for the book
"Analog Man's Guide To Vintage Effects" by Tom Hughes.