After 20 years as a creative linchpin in the hit-making culture of the American music industry — living a creative arc from sideman to superstar — Les Paul went into semi-retirement in 1965. By then, Les had seen and done it all. Too much for Mary Ford, who divorced Paul in 1962 after she reportedly tired of the traveling musicians’ lifestyle.
Except for his two albums with Chet Atkins, 1975’s Chester & Lester and 1977’s Guitar Monsters, the next decade-and-a-half was quiet for Les. He kept developing new technology in the workshop of his Mahwah, New Jersey home – refinements for recording, video transmission and guitar sonics — but rarely made public appearances.
And yet at the same time Les began distancing himself from the music business a chance meeting with guitarist Lou Pallo at a bar in Greenwood Lake, New York, laid the foundation for the final phase of his career — the two decades he held weekly court on stage at New York City’s Fat Tuesday’s and Iridium nightclubs.
Pallo was working with the Cashmeres the night he and Les met in the mid-’60s. Stuck by Pallo’s playing, Les called him over during a break and they exchanged phone numbers. The next day Les invited Pallo to his house. They recorded some songs and hung out. They soon became close friends and began hitting the clubs to catch up-and-coming players. One night, at Club Allegro in Garfield, New Jersey, they met Jimi Hendrix. “We did not know who he was; he was very loud and we both agreed that his was not our style of music,” Pallo observes in the autobiography on his web site.
Occasionally Les would bring his guitar to New York City and sit in at Pallo’s gigs.
As the 1970s ran into the ’80s, Les began feeling the call to the stage once more and suggested to Pallo they play some gigs together under his name. After a few trial duo shows close to Les’ home in New Jersey, they decided to take their act to the Big Apple to establish a regular gig.
Les approached the booking agent of jazz club Fat Tuesday’s in lower Manhattan, who was reluctant to schedule the Les Paul Trio, which now included bassist Gary Mazzaroppi and Pallo, on Monday nights. That was Pallo’s evening off from his regular gigs, and the day the club didn’t open. But when the agent called the owner and explained that Paul not only wanted the night, but was willing to play for free, the residency that shook the world of guitar began.
“We worked at Fat Tuesdays in NYC for 12 years,” Pallo recounts. “Every guitar player from jazz, country and rock came in to see Les. Not only musicians; we had comedians, actors, politicians, etc.”
The tiny room fit less than a hundred listeners who came to revel in Les’ recreations of his classics like “How High The Moon” as well as signature performances like “Caravan” and his lush arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” His relentless melodic invention always blew the cobwebs off tunes like the latter. Les’ picking speed was decreased by the arthritis that plagued him for the last 30 years of his life. In fact, he never practiced, saving his fingers for the gig, and used extra large triangle picks to compensate for his weakened grip. But it didn’t matter. His performances always lived up to his legend.
In 1996 the Les Paul Trio lost their gig when Fat Tuesday’s closed. But the owner of midtown Manhattan’s Iridium got Les’ phone number from a critic at The New York Post and invited Les to come check out the club. Within two weeks the Trio transplanted their residency to Iridium. The club’s original location on 63rd Street was as small as Fat Tuesday’s, but the club and Les soon moved to a new Iridium at the corner of 51st and Broadway. The second Iridium is much larger than Fat Tuesday’s and has a colorful cave aesthetic, with neon stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Les held court there — with Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Slash, Jeff Beck and scores of other great guitarists he’d influenced coming by to listen and sometimes sit in — until several weeks before his death on August 13, 2009, at age 94.
Today Pallo still holds down that gig, working with bassist Nicki Parrott and pianist John Colianani as the Les Paul Trio to honor his late friend. “I feel honored to know that I was part of Les coming out of retirement and inspired him to get back out there where he belonged,” Pallo observes.
Read more about Les and Lou Pallo here.
Photo: Arnie Goodman