July/August 2001

Les Paul

Fifty years ago, in the name of good oral hygiene, Les Paul, legendary musician and father of the electric guitar, sold his Hollywood bungalow and moved to New Jersey. The president of Listerine had heard Les Paul and Mary Ford’s latest hit “How High the Moon?” and wanted to broadcast a Listerine-sponsored radio and television program straight from the comfort of Paul’s home, five times a day, five days a week. Knowing his house in Hollywood wasn’t large enough to host a television crew, and knowing that Jersey-based Listerine would want him close to headquarters, Paul agreed to move to the East Coast. As a token of their appreciation, the oral antiseptic corporation helped Paul build a house, complete with studios for the Listerine broadcast, on a beautiful, wooded, seven-acre lot in northern New Jersey. He’s lived there ever since.

The Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home Show ran from 1953 to 1960, and the studios have since been converted into a private Les Paul museum. Though best known for creating the solid-body electric guitar (Gibson’s flagship electric model still bears his name), Paul is also responsible for innovating such bread-and-butter recording devices as the reverb and delay units and the multitrack recorder. Over the years, he has amassed an impressive collection of musical equipment, much of which he helped create. “I still have the original 8-track, and I have all the different guitars I designed,” he says, followed by a long sigh. “It’s a lot of stuff.”

The in-house museum is a sentimental way to remember his treasured past, but at 86, Paul isn’t ready to put himself in that museum. “I went into retirement in 1965 and I came out of retirement in 1980, totally convinced that I’ve gotta keep my ass moving because if I don’t, I’m gonna dry up and blow away.”

Remaining active means staying in touch with the never-ending developments in recording technology. Paul admits he doesn’t own many of the latest studio gadgets, but claims he “surely knows what’s going on.” Advances in digital recording could have long ago left the analog veteran in the dark with only the insufficient glow of a vacuum tube to light his way, but Paul is more forward-thinking than most folk half his age. “I hear these guys say it all the time, ‘Well, the reason it’s not good is because it’s digital’,” he says of young musicians he meets at clubs. “I have to look over my glasses and say, ‘Hey, you better get with it, because it’s here.’” Reading books on audio engineering and listening avidly to talk radio help him stay up-to-date on technology trends.

Paul keeps his chops with a weekly Monday night gig at his home away from home: New York’s Iridium club. Only 45 minutes from his Jersey digs, the Iridium has hosted Paul and his trio for the past six years. The show has become popular among musicians, allowing Paul to pick players from the crowd to sit in on a number. Musicians should be aware that Paul doesn’t let just anybody onto his stage. “If you tell me you’re good and you get up here and you’re not, you’re gonna get the hook,” he explains. “We try to screen them out; people around me who I know, they’ll tell me, ‘This guy’s darn good,’ but once in a while one will slip in there, a brother-in-law, and we have to give him the hook!”

The Personal Files

TV Shows: 60 Minutes and The Sopranos are favorites, but Paul says he doesn’t watch much TV.

Sports Team: The New York Yankees. He listens to the games on his radio.

Guitar & Amps: Lately Paul has been playing a 1980 Gibson Les Paul Heritage solid-body guitar into either a vintage blackface Fender Twin Reverb or a solid-state amp made by Tech 21, but he’s a firm believer in the performance, saying, “It starts at the string. The more you screw up, the more you try and untangle it on the other end, but you’ve got to start at the beginning to get it right.”

Food & Drink: He stays away from alcoholic drinks, sticking to nonalcoholic beers, and although he is a vegetarian, he says if no one’s looking, he’ll eat everything.

Stereo/Electronics: Several Sony CD players, a McIntosh tuner for radio listening, a MiniDisc recorder he dictates into for a forthcoming book about his life and a collection of “little, funky, raunchy speakers.”

Car: A Lexus 400 that he likes to drive fast. “My friends in the police department tell me they gotta make tickets out or they’ll get the hell beat out of them. They’ve got a quota for tickets, and I might end up being one of them.”

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