What can one possibly say, or where can one begin when it comes to describe the greatness that will forever be Les Paul?! I can’t even remember exactly what it was that first connected us as friends, as it was so long ago, but I can tell you that when I got my ’52 gold top Les Paul guitar in 1967, right at the start of the vintage guitar boom, I had no idea who Les Paul was. I was just 15 years old, and I can tell you that that was the first time I really understood what it was to hold and play a truly great instrument.
Les and I got to perform together at the Danny Gatton tribute concerts at Tramps in NYC in 1994, as Danny was connected to and loved by both Les and I. I still have tons of footage of that concert, including a rare, and never seen interview of me and Les that was conducted downstairs from the club that same night. Later on, after that, Les had me play at his 87th Birthday party at I guess what was Fat Tuesday’s at the time, before he switched his weekly gig to the Iridium. That was a thrill, as I got to also play with my buddies Jeff Beck and Cornell Dupree that night in honor of Les.
I can recall going up onstage and telling the story of what had actually happened to me the night before….I went to South Bend, Indiana to visit an elderly man whose family had just sold me his old 1950 Buick Roadmaster woodie wagon, but who also told me that he used to play many years ago, and that under his bed was a 1951 SJ 200 jumbo acoustic that he had bought new from the factory in ’51! So, there it was, still under the bed after all those years, and I negotiated a deal, and bought the guitar. As I was leaving, after a nice time with the old chap, I mentioned that I was going to play at Les’ birthday party the next night. Well, as if on cue, he then said, you mean ol’ “Rhubarb Red?”….man, we used to play with him all the time around Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin!
Man, I just couldn’t believe my ears, because here I was, buying a car and a guitar from a guy who was an old-time contemporary of Les’ from the REALLY old days of his career. Well, I got to tell this story from the stage to Les and all the other great folks who were gathered, including one of my heroes, Soupy Sales! I also remember being shocked that my Les Paul was the only vintage one in the joint!
Les and I went on to have many great phone chats after that, talking old cars, guitars, and any other subject that would pop into out crazy heads. He was a one of a kind; funny, biting wit, always a gentleman, and the last of an American true tradition of people from a certain era who questioned and re-invented everything. Sometimes I thought he liked to talk so long on the phone because he was fascinated with how the darn thing worked!
Hey, if he were born some years earlier, he probably would’ve invented that too, along with the phonograph and the light bulb, to boot! Goodbye old friend, you sure made your mark forever, but you already knew that, thanks to all the love you were always showered with. But all you ever really wanted to do was to keep playing, and to have a good time. Time to hoist a good Wisconsin-made beer to you, like you always loved to drink, and truly say that the world was never the same because of you, and never will be the same without you. To anyone who plays the electric guitar, remember, Les Paul was your Father.