Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul: Pizzicato al fine

Musician and innovator of musical technology, Grammy-winner Les Paul, born Lester William Polsfuss, died today at the age of 94.

He had a great career before and after World War II in bands fronted by such greats as Bing Crosby,Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong, But it's no stretch to say that the last fifty years of American pop music would be almost unrecognizable to us today without two of Paul's signature inventions: the solid-body electric guitar, and multi-track tape mixing.

Grow up listening to Jimmy Page wail on a Gibson Honey Burst? Thank Les Paul.

Or Keith Richards on his Fender Stratocaster? Thank Les Paul.

So used to it you don't even think twice when you hear something impossible like a choir of Simons and Garfunkles singing at the end of "The Boxer" or a roomful of George Harrisons crooning, "Something in the way she knows--and all I have to do is think of her"? Thank Les Paul.

And don't even get me started on his own one-of-a-kind jazz/country style of playing.

Here he is, circa 1950, performing one of his classics with Mary Ford.

And he was picking right up until the end:

In 1983 he started to play weekly performances at Fat Tuesday’s, an intimate Manhattan jazz club. “I was always happiest playing in a club,” he said in a 1987 interview. “So I decided to find a nice little club in New York that I would be happy to play in.”

After Fat Tuesday’s closed in 1995, he moved his Monday-night residency to Iridium. He performed there until early June; guest stars have been appearing with his trio since then and will continue to do so indefinitely, a spokesman for the club said.

At his shows he used one of his own customized guitars, which included a microphone on a gooseneck pointing toward his mouth so that he could talk through the guitar. In his sets he would mix reminiscences, wisecracks and comments with versions of jazz standards. Guests — famous and unknown — showed up to pay homage or test themselves against him. Despite paralysis in some fingers on both hands, he retained some of his remarkable speed and fluency.

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