By Daniel Kohn
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I can't begin to say how surprising and thrilling it was to look at the listings for the week and see that the grand old master of guitar, LES PAUL, will be appearing at the House of Blues on Friday night! You can't overstate the importance of the Wizard of Waukesha. Suffice it to say that it's just about impossible to imagine the evolution of 20th-century American music playing out the way it did without Paul's immense array of contributions. Considering his unmitigated virtuosity and pioneering recording innovations, his creation of what many believe to be the last word in quality electric guitars (personally, I liken playing the Gibson Les Paul to driving a Cadillac), and the breathtaking roster of musicians he has worked with and influenced, it's not far-fetched to place Paul's name on the Top 10 Most Significant Musical Figures of the Past Century list. His sway transcends the notion of hyperbole; Paul is Merlinlike in his legendary status and in the awe he continues to inspire among guitarists of any generation and stylistic bent. Paul is to the guitar as Muhammad Ali was to boxing, as Michael Jordan was to basketball, as Babe Ruth was to baseball. Okay, I admit it: I'm more of an advocate than an unbiased journalist in this man's case, so fuckin' sue me.
Lester William Poifus moved from Waukesha, Wisconsin, to Chicago in the mid-1930s while he was still a teenager, and his earliest work gave fair notice that this was not a guy content to be pigeonholed. He performed Django Reinhardt-influenced jazz under the name Les Paul, recorded hillbilly music as Rhubarb Red, and anonymously backed black blues diva Georgia White, who was best known for such bawdy ditties as "Hot Nuts" and "I'll Keep Sittin' On It (If I Can't Sell It)"—quite an impressive and eclectic early résumé for a Midwestern white kid in an era of sanctioned segregation, both racially and musically.
Through the late '30s and early '40s, Paul moved twixt New York and Hollywood, doing stints with veteran big band Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians and recording jazz with his own trio. Paul gained true immortality in the jazz world in 1944 as guitarist at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, where he jammed with Nat "King" Cole, Illinois Jacquet and J.J. Johnson. Paul's playful, fluttering, hyperactive work helped make the concert a momentous occasion that is considered a landmark event in jazz—and among the first natal screams of rock & roll as well. (A transcription of the show is the first entry in the thoughtful Jim Dawson/Steve Propes book What Was the First Rock & Roll Record?)
Throughout the remainder of the decade, Paul continued to record as a leader, playing jazz, country, pop and Hawaiian material; refused to accept any boundaries; and backed such talent as the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby and Dick Haymes. The common denominator and identifying factor with Paul was always the mischievous, fun-loving nature of his playing—you could almost hear him sniggering like an idiot as he peeled off licks with such speed and precision that you know he had to be completely delighted with himself. This merry method, which always defined his style, was taken to new heights in the late '40s and early '50s as Paul began experimenting with multitracked and variable-speed recording, techniques that would become the foundation of rock music 20 years hence. Several futuristic-sounding sides recorded both solo and with his vocalist wife, Mary Ford, became big hits. A personal fave of mine has always been "Carioca," which sounds like thousands of cockroaches scurrying up and down your back. Paul wasn't even sidelined for long after he was mutilated in a 1948 car wreck; in lieu of having his right arm amputated, he had the doctors permanently and immovably set it at an angle suitable for playing guitar!
From the '60s to the present day, Paul hasn't done much recording (although a pair of late '70s duet albums with Chet Atkins added to his legacy), however, his legend and import were already set in stone by then. Guitarists will forever speak his name in worshipful terms. For the way he effortlessly blended styles and blazed trails in recording and guitar technology and for the attention he brought to the possibilities offered by the humble wooden box with six strings, Les Paul is God's fretting hand. Since 1984, he has played weekly concerts in New York City's Fat Tuesday and Iridium nightclubs, regularly attended by celebrity fans who turn out to pay homage. The old master will turn 86 the week after his performance at the House of Blues; expect a host of local guitar heroes to be in tow. Only a colossal weenie would miss a chance to ball with Paul!
Les Paul at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Fri., 7 p.m. $40.