Les Paul: Bing, BB and me

The godfather of the electric guitar is 91 but still playing regularly. Paul Alcantara speaks to the man who inspired some of the most celebrated axe-wielders in rock
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The Independent Culture

Les Paul is not a man to be slowed down by old age and crippling arthritis in his hands. The guitarist, who turned 91 this month, still gigs every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York. "I'm out every Monday," he says. "We do two shows at the Iridium Club. It's a great club and I've got some great players and all the guys, all the guitar players, celebrities, whatever, I get 'em up on the stage with me."

He is not exaggerating. Guitarists from all walks of rock, from B B King to Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, have played with Paul. But it is perhaps because of the guitar that bears his name rather than his playing technique that he is so in demand and even has the Mojo award for outstanding guitarist named after him. The Gibson Les Paul is widely considered the hard-rock guitar par excellence, favoured by such rock'n'roll luminaries as Jimmy Page, Slash, Bob Marley, Marc Bolan, and Eric Clapton (in his pioneering period with the Blues Breakers).

Paul maintains a fatherly interest in the guitarists who have continued to carry the torch he lit in the 1950s. "I just think they're great! I admire them very much and I know the feeling is mutual. Especially Jeff Beck. Jeff played like me to begin with but he went his own way and became such a fine player - and what a nice person!"

It was back in the Fifties that Paul had a string of hits, recorded with his wife, Mary Ford. Paul met Colleen Summers, as she was then called, while working on a new radio show for NBC. "I was looking for a girl singer," he recalls, "and Gene Autry said, 'There's three gals that sing backup for me and there's one called Colleen, who is pretty and sharp.' After listening to the rehearsal, I asked Gene for her phone number. When I called, she thought it was hoax, as I was her favourite guitar-player!

"I finally convinced her to come over, and when she arrived, I'd forgotten about it and was on the front lawn mowing the grass with a flashlight, 'cause it's at night. I'm picking up beer cans and old newspapers and stuff, and she pulls up in a car and asks, 'Where are the studios?', and I says, 'Follow the driveway.'

"When she got there, she asked the guys, 'Well, where's Les Paul?', and when I finally showed up, they said, 'Here's Les', and she says, 'Guys, quit kidding me. That's the gardener!'" The couple were married in 1949.

He was born Lester William Polsfuss (which was Anglicised to Polfuss, then Paul) in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on 9 June 1915. He has had a close and mutually beneficial relationship with Gibson Guitars for decades, and the Les Paul guitar has become a central part of the brand's history. "It means a lot to me because I started working with Gibson in 1928," he says, "and have been with them ever since. I've seen presidents come and go and it's great to see what has happened to the Gibson Company, which was so tiny then and is so enormous now."

As a youngster, Paul had the stage name Rhubarb Red. "I tuned into a local radio station," he explains, "and there was a fellow singing whose name was Pie Plant Pete, which is another name for Rhubarb. This was perfect for me! He was my mentor. I copied Pie Plant Pete so close that you couldn't tell us apart." The seven-year-old Paul would eventually share a stage with his hero - much to the amusement of the audience.

Even at that young age, Paul was turning his attention to his guitar's amplification. "I attached a broomstick to a cinderblock in order to make a mic-stand, used my mother's telephone attached to a radio to sing into, and got a job playing at a barbecue stand. However, my guitar was just not loud enough. Eventually, I took a phonograph pick-up and jabbed the needle into the top of the guitar, right at the bridge to see if I could amplify the guitar. It worked but fed back, so I stuffed napkins, socks, everything I could think of into the hole to prevent feedback. I ended up filling it with plaster of Paris!"

Later, Paul was a professional musician, working five times a week on NBC radio. Convinced that the solution to the problem lay in amplifying the pure sound of the string, he built a guitar that consisted of little more than a length of four-by-four pine to which he attached pick-ups and a guitar neck. "I took it to a nightclub and there was no audience response at all," he said. Realising that the appearance of "the Log" was the problem, he added wings to make it look like a regular guitar. "I returned to the same nightclub, sat down and played and tore the place apart. I said, 'My goodness! People hear with their eyes!' "

When he first approached Gibson, in 1941, they laughed at "the character with the broomstick with the pickups on it". It took the success of Leo Fender's plank-like Telecaster to galvanise Gibson into action. "They said: 'Come to Chicago. Bring the broomstick.'" The Gibson Les Paul was launched in 1952.

Though he has worked with such iconic figures as Judy Garland, Count Basie and Django Reinhardt, Paul cites his work with Bing Crosby as the highlight of his career. "I learnt so much working with Bing. He was frightening! He had so much power."

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