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The Many Lives of Les Paul

Note: This article originally ran on August 22, 2002 at Blogcritics.org, where I was among its earliest and most prolific contributors. I wrote numerous essays, interviews and product reviews there until about 2009 or so. At some point in late 2017, the current management at Blogcritics chose to remove all of my articles without notifying me, and have yet to respond to my email requests for an explanation, or to let me know how to restore them there. (Accidents happen on the Internet; perhaps it was just a glitch?) In the interim, I will slowly be reposting my more interesting pieces here.

My interview with Les Paul (1915-2009) certainly qualifies. It had one of the longest comment threads at Blogcritics, as readers alternately swapped their own encounters with Les, or reminded themselves that they needed to make the pilgrimage to watch him play in New York before it was too late, or simply mentioned that they owned one of his namesake Gibson electric guitars.

The interview came about because I had recently joined the Les Paul Guitar Forum looking for information to restore my 1983 Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty.” One of the members there is Robb Lawrence, a veteran session guitarist and close friend of Les, who has since gone on to write a pair of heavily illustrated and beautifully presented books on “The Les Paul Legacy,” both the man and the many variations of his namesake Gibson electric guitar. I took a flyer, emailed him, and he wrote back suggesting I give him a call. Robb and I had an amazing chat, with him critiquing a few of the blog posts I had written, and discussing the benefits of a vegetarian diet and the evils of SUVs, before saying, out of the blue, "So you want to talk to Les? Hang on, I'll put patch him into the call." After I recovered from that shock, we arranged my interview with Les backstage at his weekly haunt, New York's Iridium nightclub on the phone. I just needed to show up with a tape recorder and a camera...

Les Paul, the father of the electric guitar and multitrack recording, dressed in a thick, oatmeal-colored ribbed turtleneck sweater (and it's in the high-70s and humid on this June 3rd 2002 day), navy blue trousers and black loafers, and wearing wire rimmed aviator-style glasses, is doing a sound check at 6:00 p.m., before the first of his two shows every Monday night at the Iridium Club on Broadway and 51st in Manhattan.

"Is my amp flat"? He asks. "It's flat, Les." Comes the reply from his soundman.

"On the dot?" "On the dot, Les."

"It should be 4 decibels clean," Paul replies. "In other words, when I hit this note" — Paul bangs the high E-string of his signature guitar — "it should be minus-four on the meter. On the tape machine, it should be zero. But I know this guitar is like a minesweeper, sometimes!"