Although we lost America’s ultimate guitar genius Les Paul on August 12, 2009, his music legacy will live on and be loved as long as humans walk the Earth. This Saturday, June 9, would have been Paul’s ninety-seventh birthday.
In case the Gibson guitar models that bear his name aren’t tribute enough, here’s a list of 10 of Lester’s coolest classic musical contributions, all of which illustrate his passion for innovation:
• “How High The Moon”: In 1951 Les Paul & Mary Ford’s version of this jazz standard spent nine weeks at number one and 25 weeks on the pop charts. It was the first absolute smash pop single to feature multi-tracking, giving the performance a distinctive textured sheen that was in no small part responsible for the attention it won from radio listeners. Not only is Paul’s guitar layered to shimmering beauty; he gave the same treatment to Ford’s vocal performance, making the single a little piece of sonic nirvana.
• “Caravan”: The great jazz composer Juan Tizol penned this number which Duke Ellington made famous with his 1937 recording. Paul version, which appeared on his early ’50s instrumental album The New Sound, featured his tape manipulation. Paul sped up the lead guitar track, creating a high-pitched chirpy tone that’s the six-string equivalent of Ross Bagdasarian’s famed cartoon chipmunks. Later he’d re-cut the tune with another legendary Gibson player: Chet Atkins.
• “The World Is Waiting For the Sunrise”: Paul met country and western singer Colleen Summers in 1945, and by the time they were married in ’49 she’d adopted her famous stage name. Their 1951 version of this song, written in 1918 by Canadians Gene Lockhart and Ernest Seitz, sold a million copies and was among their first recordings to feature Ford harmonizing with herself thanks to Paul’s multi-tracked vocal recordings.
• “I’m Sitting On Top of the World”: Not to be confused with the blues songs by Howlin’ Wolf or the Mississippi Sheiks, Paul and Ford’s 1953 performance of this Vaudeville-era number was a gold record that once again featured Paul’s multi-tracking. But this time he upped the ante by using a variety of guitars — including an acoustic— and tones, plus playing an absolutely ripping high-speed lead that he put over the top by speeding it up on tape even faster. The delirium of Paul’s playing contrasted with the warm stability of Ford’s vocal performance made this single another big winner and displayed Paul’s conceptual strength.
• “Bye Bye Blues”: Paul was never much of a composer or songwriter, but his interpretive genius ricochets throughout this recording from 1952’s Bye Bye Blues album, and the song become one of 1953’s biggest singles. The guitar playing is a direct descending of Paul’s days in Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians as well as his country roots. His chord are dead-on big band flat-four, and his first clean toned, unvarnished solo break exhibits the devotion to the vocalist’s melody that’s echoed in so much classic country six-string work.
• “Vaya Con Dios”: One of the most romantic love song recordings ever rendered, Les and Mary’s 1953 number one hit is absolutely gorgeous. Once again, it uses multi-tracking — to soften Ford’s voice into a warm teardrop — and Paul’s playing constitutes his most lyrically supportive performance, while at the same time utilizing overtones, jazz chords, melodic departures and a smooth melody line that all illustrate his brilliant musicianship.
• “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”: Paul’s earlier work as a sideman is often overlooked, but his brilliant performance on Bing Crosby’s 1945 number one hit is perfect. Backed by Paul’s trio, Crosby croons along as the guitar weaves supportive countermelodies beneath. Crosby was so smitten with Paul as a musician and friend that he bankrolled Paul’s early experiments with multi-tracking, making him an important player in the history of recording.
• “Rumors Are Flying”: Paul’s trio backed several other notable acts of the ’40s, including the harmony singing Andrews Sisters. Even with this single’s pedantic approach, Paul shines through, playing both bass and tenor lines on guitar before stepping up to the plate for a solo that stretches the song’s main melody in all kinds of jazz-inflected directions.
• “Blues”: Paul was called in as the last-minute replacement of guitarist Oscar Moore at 1944’s historic Jazz At the Philharmonic concert, where his duel with pianist Nat “King” Cole on the tune “Blues” was a highlight. The recording captures Paul’s virtuosity and humor. He comps like Freddie Greene, then jumps into his solo with typical humor and grace, weaving together a bed of melodies and musical asides that crown the tune — and that’s before he and Cole go at it. Their absolute crescendo outshines the other killer jazzmen on stage, who include trombonist J.J. Johnson and saxist Illinois Jacquet.
• “Lover When You’re Near Me”: Paul debuted his multi-tracking technique on this 1948 instrumental single featuring eight guitars, some played at what he called “half-speed” so they’d sound like musical meteorites when he recorded them at full speed for the master version. The tune was the realization of more than a decade of working to perfect his multi-tracking concept.