By Roger “Hurricane” Wilson
We are all saddened by the loss of the legendary Les Paul. We know that he changed the world of music with his inventions of sound on sound recording, as well as the invention of the solid body electric guitar. Many know that he crossed many boundaries by winning multiple awards for his achievements, as well as inductions to various halls of fame. Many obituaries, tributes, and eulogies are being written about Les Paul. When I was in the broadcast news business, one of my bosses told me, “If you are going to write something, tell me something I don’t know!” Well here goes! It is true that for me, being friends with a guy like Les Paul would never be an unwanted attribute, but in my case, it was truly unexpected.
In September of 2003, I was on tour in the Northeast, and I decided I wanted to catch one of Les Paul’s weekly shows in New York City. A couple of friends and I decided to make the trip to the Iridium Jazz Club near Times Square to catch Les’ show. After paying the thirty or so dollars each to get in, we were there! I was really excited to be able to catch the guy in action that I had read about for many years, plus for the years of my playing the model of guitar named after him… The Gibson Les Paul! I had determined that I was going to make this night pleasurable and go easy on myself. I wasn’t going to try to get an autograph, or get on stage, or schmooze, hustle, or do any kind of PR or music business. It was just going to be a guitar lesson for me.
The lights went down, and Tom, the sound man announced, “And now the man that has changed the course of popular music for all of us, Mr. Les Paul and his trio.” It was amazing, and I was enthralled! There he was, in the flesh… the guy that invented multi-track recording, and the solid body electric guitar. I was savoring the moment and was oblivious to everything else around me. This was what I was waiting for. After about 3 or 4 songs, Les starting cutting up with the crowd and the band. It seemed that someone on the front row was talking to him, and had said something on the order of “I play guitar too”. Les replied, “so you play too, well come on up here and show us what you can do.” At that moment, a well dressed Middle Eastern Indian gentleman approached the stage. He strapped on the guitar that Les keeps on the piano for just such occasions. I wasn’t sure what was happening here, and I was trying to figure it out. The guy started playing the introduction to T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday… BADLY! Now I was getting worried! The hair on the back of my neck was starting to stand up. My friends, Bobby and John, knew I was starting to get restless.
I was trying to keep from turning green and to not have my clothes split off me like The Incredible Hulk. The guy played the one song, and he was off the stage. It really wasn’t a pretty site. By this time, I was fit to be tied, mainly because I couldn’t leave this night with that vision in my head. Les resumed his show and I did eventually calm down to enjoy the rest of the set.
At the close of this, the first show, the announcement was made that CD’s could be purchased from Les’ son, Russ. I immediately went to him, bought a CD, and asked him if that last appearance had been planned. He said that they had never seen the guy before. I explained to him who I was, and that I was on tour, and that I had my first Les Paul guitar when I was 18. Russ said if he had known I was there, he would have gotten me up to jam. I immediately said, “I’m still here!” He said OK, come on back and I’ll introduce you to Dad. I was caught off guard by his response and ecstatic at the same time! When I met Les, it was like talking to an old friend. I explained to him my situation, and he seemed pleased. He said to stand by the stage and he would get me up with him. I did that and was beside myself. In the next set, he called me up with no idea of who I was or what I could do. I introduced myself to the audience over the mike telling them my name and how honored I was to be there. I immediately launched into a simple version of “Everyday I Have the Blues”, with the band following. As I played and sang, Les was smiling. After that song, he said, “Well what else ya got?” I went into a slow B.B. King Blues classic, “Sweet Little Angel”. That was exciting since, I made it to the second song!” Les and I swapped some licks back and forth. He and I were having a ball! The first guy got the hook after the first tune. When I came off stage, I was walking on air. This was a day I would never forget!
Over the next few years, I would return to jam with Les and the band another 6 times. I became friends with the band and crew, Lou, Nicki, John, Tom, and Chris. Les’ son, Russ, and I would stay in touch, and during my trips to the northeast, I would attend his Sunday night jams at various locations around northern New Jersey, and then go into the city to see Les. The stories I was hearing from him were priceless. He told me how he got Mary Ford to speak into a mike down the hall, and when he heard her voice repeated on the extra tape head he installed, he knew he had found the thing that would change music recording forever. He told Mary to grab the laundry, throw it in the car, and that they were heading to Chicago. She kept saying, “What if it doesn’t work?” During that trip from California, by the time they were in New Mexico, he was wondering if it would work. He then said, “By the time we got to Chicago, I had convinced myself that it wasn’t going to work”. He was thankful that when they drilled the first hole in a new Ampex tape recorder in Chicago to add the extra record head, that “we didn’t screw anything up!”
During another of my visits, Les simply said, “Man, if I was to ever retire, I would just die!” He was 89 then! Another time, I was helping the guys carry some gear up to the street to put in the car. After 2 shows, he had signed autographs for a line of people that circled the inside of the club. He had signed everything from guitars to pictures, to records, to pick guards, to you name it! After signing every last item, Les was still downstairs in the rest room. As I headed back in, the manager at the door with keys to lock up said, “What did you forget?” I said Les is still in the club! I ran back down and got him. I’ll never forget Les Paul holding on to my arm as we climbed the stairs at 1 A.M.
When he turned 90, it seemed that the world showed up to witness him. The crowds were lined up out the door at the Iridium on Monday nights. Interviewers from all walks of media were at the dressing room door for weeks before and after his birthday. I had the pleasure of sitting in with him 3 days before his actual 90th. The big event was a couple of weeks later at a star-studded event in Carnegie Hall.
My last visit with him was in November of 2007, at age 92. When my friend, Bobby Lyons, and I arrived at the Iridium early, Les was having his usual dinner in the dressing room. He was always eating his dinner on a turned on the side audio monitor cabinet. I always wondered why they didn’t get him a small table in there. This time, when I arrived, Les responded and waved slowly. It was a little disconcerting to me, be we left to grab a bite before the show. When I returned, I happened to be in position to help him on to the stage. He ambled to his chair, picked up his guitar, and as soon as the introduction announcement was made and the lights came up, “It Was Showtime!” He was back! I got to sit in both sets that night! After the second show, he came back into the dressing room, collapsed on the couch and said, “Man I’m Tired!” I said, “Les! Are you OK? I was really quite concerned about you earlier”. He said, “Oh yea, I’m fine. I’ve just been putting in these 14 hour days”. I replied, “14 hour days! What are you doing?” He said, “I’m still working on these guitars”. “What are you doing to them?” I asked. “I’m still trying to get that sound right!” I was amazed! This is why he would jump out of bed every morning to keep “chasing sound”.
The amazing thing about Les, is that, with as many important and well-known people that he associated and rubbed shoulders with, he would always remember the guys, like me, who loved to play guitar. He would sign guitars when I would take them in, and he would always write something nice. “Keep picking” was a favorite, but the night he wrote, “Those Were Some Great Blues!” I was pretty well knocked out. He actually confessed to me that since he was more commercially oriented, he didn’t know much about the history of the Blues. He asked me to explain it to him. I sat in the dressing room of the Iridium one night and gave him my basic simple interpretation of the origin of the Blues. He sat there listening carefully, really soaking it in. I couldn’t believe that Les Paul was actually learning something from me!
Just during the month of June this year, I attended one of Russ Paul’s jams in New Jersey. My plan was to go into New York City on the Monday afterward to see Les. Russ told me that Les hadn’t been able to make some shows in the last few weeks, and he had been in and out of the hospital. He had even missed his 94th birthday gig on June 9. I was concerned about it, but Russ said his Dad was doing better, and that he was itching to get back to work. If I knew anything at all about Les, I knew that was true. He said that his Monday gigs at the Iridium were just like celebrating New Year’s Eve every week. He proved to me many times that having a passion for something in life will keep one alive. For a guy like Les Paul, and with a life like he had, we can’t afford to mourn his loss as much as we need to celebrate his life. We need to “KEEP ON PICKING”!
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Roger “Hurricane” Wilson
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