There are so many reasons Les Paul is legendary among guitar fans. His inventiveness, his determination, and of course his wicked sense of humor are all a big part of it. And all of these characteristics were regularly displayed when Les played his famous Monday night residency at New York's Iridium jazz club. For a while there it almost seemed like a famous guitar player couldn't call themselves a guitarist until they'd sat in with Les and his band on one of those legendary nights. So there are dozens, if not hundreds, of accounts of famous players sharing the stage with Les, from jazz virtuosos like Mike Stern to heavy metal powerhouses like Zakk Wylde. And Les could hang with them all. Because he was one of us at heart: a guitar dude.
If you want to hear Les collaborating with modern players, a fine place to start would be Les Paul & Friends - American Made, World Played (2005). It’s an album of tracks featuring Les Paul along with various other legendary musicians. Just check out this track list:
“Love Sneakin' up on You” - Sting and Joss Stone
“Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” - Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Edgar Winter
“Somebody Ease My Troublin' Mind” - Eric Clapton and Sam Cooke
“So Into You” - Peter Frampton
“How High The Moon” - Les Paul and Alsou
“Bad Case Of Lovin' You” - Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top
“I Wanna Know You” - Neal Schon and Beth Hart
“Good News” - Jeff Beck and Sam Cooke
“Let Me Roll It” - Richie Sambora
“Caravan” - Les Paul
“Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” - Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, Rick Derringer
“All I Want Is You” - Johnny Rzeznik of Goo Goo Dolls
“69 Freedom Special” - Les Paul and Friends All Star Jam
“Fly Like An Eagle” (2005) - Steve Miller
“ Love You More Than You'll Ever Know” - Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Mick Hucknall of Simply Red
It's quite telling of Les' musicianly nature that he never overshadows his guests on these recordings. With players as good-naturedly powerful as Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Billy Gibbons and Richie Sambora, Les opted for tasteful accompaniment and only occasional solos instead of taking the lead and drawing attention to himself. In fact, the album is a great example of how Les adapted his playing in the face of injury and advancing years. Latter day Les Paul was a master of the perfectly-placed note, in a similar but almost opposite way to how young Les had such incredible command over speed and flash.
A similar release, Les Paul & Friends: Tribute To A Legend (2008), featured some of the same tracks as well as several different ones, including Joe Bonamassa's take on "The Good Luck You're Having," "I Don't Want To Be With Nobody But You" by Joan Osbourne, and Slash on "Vocalise." Slash said of the set: “This is a record where instead of playing Les Paul's music and trying to imitate his inimitable style, it is a showcase of guitar players doing their own thing, but in tribute to his influence on our musicianship, recording techniques and use of effects. All of which wouldn't be anything like what they are if it weren't for Les Paul's creative & technical pioneering genius. And, at 93 years old he is still as obsessed with pioneering as many new gadgets and techniques to make life more interesting, as he always has been.”
But the real crux of the biscuit, as Frank Zappa would have put it, was that famous Monday night residency at the Iridium. For an example of the loose, creative and above all entertaining vibe of the shows, check out this brief but brilliant clip of Zakk Wylde playing some fast jazz licks in the style of some of Les' ‘40s and ‘50s work.
Talk about pressure! Zakk must have felt the way Luke Skywalker felt trying to lift the X Wing out of the swamp in front of Yoda.
The best document of the Iridium tradition is Les Paul: Live In New York, a Blu-Ray/DVD combo released in 2010, featuring performances with Keith Richards, Steve Miller and Jose Feliciano. Here's Les and Keith hamming it up.
Although Les is gone now, the Les Paul Trio still performs at the Iridum every Monday night, jamming with such guests as Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Stevens and Sebastian Bach, Napoleon Murphy Brock (Frank Zappa), Todd Rundgren, Adrian Belew, Steve Cropper, John Oates, Mike Stern, Robbie Krieger (The Doors), Steve Miller, Albert Lee, Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Nels Cline (Wilco) and many more. A portion of door proceeds goes to the Les Paul Foundation too. So for years to come, Monday nights at Iridium will continue to ring with Les’s spirit.
The final word though goes to Les Paul jamming with …Les Paul himself. In this video you can hear Les and his famous Les Paulverizer in action. He really was about a dozen great guitarists in one.