Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul, the "Father of Modern Music," Passes

Legendary musician and inventor Les Paul passed away early today. He was 94.

When told in 1939 that his guitar wasn't loud enough,
Les Paul declared, "I'll make a louder guitar!"

He did. He also made it the most pervasive musical instrument in history. He also went on to create overdubbing, delay effects such as "sound on sound" and tape delay, phasing effects, and multitrack recording. There couldn't have been an Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or many other innovative, ingenious guitar virtuosos without a Les Paul.

His career spanned two thirds of the 20th century, extending into the first decade of this one. He played with so many great musicians, influenced so many more, it is almost impossible to underestimate his influence on what people around the planet experience musically every minute of every day.

My son's first professional level guitar was his Epiphone Les Paul just like this one. Alex still has it, and played it last week.

That guitar is a derivative of Gibson's earlier, more expensive Les Paul, which is perhaps the most classic of rock & roll guitars.

When Paul was working with Bing Crosby on radio after World War II, Crosby had a new, more capable reel-to-reel tape recorder, the Ampex 200, custom made for himself. He gave the second unit produced to Paul, who used the machine as the basis of creating a string of ideas leading to modern studio recording techniques. Here's Wikipedia's description of what Paul did:

Les immediately saw its potential both for special effects, like echo, and eventually its suitability for multitrack recording, of which he is considered the father. Using this machine, Paul placed an additional playback head, located before the conventional Erase-Record-Playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track. Keep in mind that this was a mono tape recorder - just ONE track across the entire width of quarter-inch tape - and so the recording was 'destructive' in the sense that the original recording was erased and replaced with the new recording.

One need only listen to any of the early Capitol recordings from the early 1950s to realize how great a challenge this process was. These revolutionary recordings were made with his wife, Mary Ford, who sang. The couple's hits included "How High the Moon", "Bye Bye Blues", "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise", and "Vaya Con Dios". These songs featured Mary harmonizing with herself, giving the vocals a very novel sound.

Les Paul's need for multiple non-destructive tracks was obvious and his re-invention of the Ampex 200 inspired Ampex to develop two-track and three-track recorders. These machines were the backbone of professional recording, radio and television studios in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1954, Paul continued to develop this technology by commissioning Ampex to build the first eight track tape recorder, at his expense.

The machine took three years to get working properly, and Paul said that by the time it was functional his music was out of favor and so he never had a hit record using it. His design became known as "Sel-Sync," (Selective Synchronization) in which a specially modified electronics could either record or playback from the Record Head, which was not optimized for playback but was acceptable for the purposes of recording an "overdub" (OD) in sync with the original recording. This is the core technology behind multi-track recording.

In the end, though, Paul was also a brilliant performer and composer, whose ability to play an almost any guitar style is legendary. Here he is, playing with country guitar legend, Chet Atkins, playing Birth of the Blues:

Here's Les Paul with his wife and musical partner, Mary Ford, on their TV program from the 50's:

And here's the Les Paul Trio, performing Dark Eyes, with a cameo singing part by Ted Healy, the vaudevillian who produced the Three Stooges (!):


Blue_in_AK said...

Some of my earliest musical memories are of Les Paul and Mary Ford. He was a genius.

Wolfe Tone said...

Les Paul was a giant.