The Gibson guitars bearing the name of Les Paul have resounded in the hands of iconic players across genres and generations, from Muddy Waters to Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page to Bob Marley, Steve Miller to Slash.
If all Paul had done during his lifetime was pioneer the design of the solid-body electric guitar, his legacy would still live on in countless solos and songs. But a far greater number of artists — almost anyone who has entered a recording studio, in fact — have used the multitracking and overdubbing techniques Paul helped develop. Paul, who was born June 9, 1915, and died Aug. 12, 2009, at the age of 94, achieved acclaim as a songwriter, performer, producer, engineer, Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper (“How High the Moon,” with wife Mary Ford, in 1951) — and one amazing guitarist.
“His playing was off the [charts] as far as dexterity and ability and creative talent go,” says Journey guitarist Neal Schon, who met Paul early in his own career and remained friends with him until the inventor’s death. “An amazing guitar player,” adds Schon. “But you combine that with everything else that he did…the guy was just a pure genius, and a sweetheart of a man.”
Paul earned numerous accolades during his lifetime: winner of Grammy Awards in pop, rock and country categories; inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1988), Songwriters Hall of Fame (2005) and National Inventors Hall of Fame (2007); and recipient of the National Medal of Artists (2007).
In this month that marks the centennial of Paul’s birth, his extended circle of devotees has joined his family and the Les Paul Foundation to celebrate his career with a tribute concert, reissues and a traveling exhibit.
“We’re using Les’ 100th birthday not as a final celebration, but as a reintroduction and a starting point to go forward,” says Michael Braunstein, the foundation’s executive director. The goal, he says, is to highlight the work of the foundation and “to reintroduce Les to people who should know who he is but don’t.”
The foundation’s primary mission is to fund music-education programs as well as medical research into such music-related issues as hearing loss. Recent grants have included a $150,000 award to Ramapo College (in the artist’s longtime hometown of Mahwah, N.J.) for studio equipment.
On June 9, the 100th anniversary of Paul’s birth, longtime friends and proteges, including Miller, Schon, Joe Satriani, Joe Bonamassa, Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, Steve Vai, rock band Count’s 77, Johnny A. and The Les Paul Trio’s Lou Pallo, performed a tribute show at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York. Earlier that day, “Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience,” a mobile exhibit of Paul memorabilia, opened in Times Square and will tour universities, state fairs, summer festivals and awards events throughout the United States, according to Braunstein. There are also exhibits of Paul’s works at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Mahwah Museum, the Waukesha Museum in Wisconsin, the artist’s birthplace and the Discovery World Museum in nearby Milwaukee.
The lattermost exhibit is designed to immerse visitors in Paul’s world of musical and technological inventions. It showcases 20 rare guitars, including the first one he built bearing his name. The Discovery World exhibit reflects the care that the Les Paul Foundation and Paul’s estate have taken to ensure that the artist’s achievements are preserved in a way he would have appreciated. “We didn’t want to go into the Smithsonian because they only take one piece and put it out, and the rest they put in a warehouse,” explains Rusty Paul, the artist’s son. “Dad didn’t want to do that. He wanted to have things out and available all the time.”
The foundation is applying the same level of attention to Paul’s recorded archives. It has retained YEBO Music founder Colin Finkelstein, formerly COO of EMI Music Group, to oversee CD, vinyl and digital reissues of Paul’s best-known albums. Universal Music Enterprises has released Les Paul Icon, an 11-track greatest-hits compilation compiled from the artist’s Capitol and Decca catalogs and featuring vocals by Ford. In addition, Universal digitally reissued four of Paul’s best-known albums: The New Sound, Les Paul’s New Sound Vol. 2, Bye Bye Blues and The Hit Makers. Finally, on June 9, through iTunes, Universal released digital reissues of the Decca instrumental EPs Hawaiian Paradise and Galloping Guitars.
As the foundation presents these centennial tributes, it also is keeping an eye on the future. Braunstein says his goal is to “get Les into the curriculum” and make sure that students learn about him in school.
“To a certain generation, Les Paul is a guitar, and Les used to joke about that onstage. He’d say, ‘People think I’m either a guitar or I’m dead,’ ” says Braunstein. “And that’s the group we’re trying to educate. But to another group, like my wife’s aunt, for her generation it’s Les and Mary. To the industry people — producers, engineers, musicians, et cetera — he’s the pioneer, the source, the trailblazer. For all of these people, Les is too important not to be studied.”