Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Les Paul is truly a man who needs no introduction. But, although his electric guitar and multi-track recording innovations have made him a living legend, his music is rarely heard. And that's a shame - a casual listen to his late '40s and '50s hits reveal a true mad genius at work. There's a whacked-out, almost Spike Jones or Carl Stalling-like level of lunacy to some of his records, often done with no-one else but Les, his guitars, and gadgets performing. Years before the Chipmunks, he was playing guitar solos at half-speed, then speeding them up for novel effect. Building his own studio, creating his own guitar effects, playing proto-rockabilly years before Elvis - this was pretty avant-garde stuff, yet he played everything with a light touch that made it accessible to mainstream America.

He was never really pegged as a novelty or experimental artist because he always made sure his wife, singer Mary Ford, was on hand to lend a smooth, romantic sheen to many of his records. Indeed, they were one of the biggest selling artists of their day. Ask any older relative who remembers America in the '40s and '50s. Believe me, they've heard of Les Paul and Mary Ford, and could probably sing a bit of "High High The Moon" or "Vaya Con Dios" to you.

These two records are Les at his intrumental best. "Lover" starts off low-key, (if eccentric with those Chipmunk guitars) then after a minute, explodes into Esquivel-like lunacy. And "Brazil" almost sounds like glitchy electronica played over an exotica rhythm section. It's hard to believe that these were recorded by one man, and in 1948.

Les Paul: "Lover"
Les Paul: "Brazil"

Les and Mary had a radio show in 1949-50 that allowed them to stretch out beyond pop song formula and into surreal humor, as this short excerpt demonstrates:

The Les Paul Show "The Case Of The Missing Les Paulverizer"

The above tracks are taken from the excellent collection The Best of the Capitol Masters: 90th Birthday Edition. Mary Ford died in 1977. Les Paul is 92 years old, and still performs weekly in New York City.


Anonymous said...

What's doubly amazing about "Lover" and 'Brazil" is that he recorded those tracks without recording tape! He did it all disc-to-disc with cutting lathes of his own design.

Incidentally, Les was born in 1915, making him 92 years old, not 98.

Thanks for the excellent website.


Mr Fab said...

Really?! Amazing. I know he built an 8-track home recording studio (the world's first 8-track, I believe), and since recording on tape became common after the war I figured that's how he made all his records. That must have come later.

Thanks, corrected the age goof.

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, most (if not all) of Les & Mary's hit songs were recorded by 'bouncing' tracks between two early Ampex reel-to-reel tape machines (i.e., recording a part on one recorder, playing it back while adding another part live while the other recorder records that... and back-and-forth ad infinitum).

By the time Les took delivery of the eight-track from Ampex in the late fifties, their career as hitmakers had pretty much ended. They did record with the eight-track, but they never had a hit song with it.

So, ironically, all the big overdubbed recordings they're famous for were created with standard (non-multitrack) recorders.


Greg Bishop said...

Thanks for posting these tracks!

I'm lucky to have seen Les Paul perform twice. He signed one of my (vinyl) records, and he's really the definition of a "gentleman."