Updated 8/14/09 at 3:37 p.m. to correct broadcast time to 9:00 p.m.
Program Features Then-92-Year-Old Guitarist and Innovator in His Own Words, With Classic Recordings, Archival and Current Performance Footage, Home Movies and More
To mark the passing yesterday of legendary guitarist, inventor and songwriter Les Paul, Nashville Public Television (NPT) will rebroadcast the American Masters documentary film, “Les Paul: Chasing Sound” on Monday, August 17, 2009 at 9:00 p.m. Central Time on NPT-Channel 8. The program will preempt the previously scheduled Objects and Memory and BBC World News.
Among inductees of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, his name comes alphabetically after Louis Pasteur. In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it follows Parliament-Funkadelic. This singular distinction belongs to Les Paul, whose insatiable curiosity and experiments gave us the musical instrument of the modern era — the solid-body electric guitar — and the predominant studio recording technique – multi-tracking. Audacious and indefatigable at every turn — from small-town Waukesha to Harlem music haunts to Hollywood studios — Paul, who passed away at the age of 94, was until recently still holding court every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City.
“It would be difficult to overstate Les Paul’s influence on popular music in the 20th century,” said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS, when the documentary first aired on PBS stations in 2007. “He pioneered the electric guitar and revolutionized our concept of what recorded music could be. Ironically, his inventions ushered in rock ’n’ roll and pushed him out of the spotlight — but not for long. You just can’t keep Les Paul down.”
Filmmaker John Paulson said of Paul in 2007, “His journey has mirrored the evolution of popular music for practically a century. We’ve been able to illustrate that journey with amazing archival television clips, radio broadcasts and interviews with the legend himself.”
“Les Paul: Chasing Sound” forgoes a narrator so that Paul’s life story comes across through his own anecdotes. The story begins in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he was born Lester Polfuss in 1915, and winds through musical meccas of the 20th century. In Chicago during the Depression, he acquired his jazz chops and jammed with piano titan Art Tatum and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Hitting New York in 1937, his trio wowed Fred Waring and radio audiences coast to coast. And in Hollywood in 1942, he landed one of the most high-profile jobs a guitarist could have — backing Bing Crosby. “It’s one of the most perfectly produced records in the history of popular music,” says critic Gary Giddins of “It’s Been A Long, Long Time,” Crosby’s post-World War II ballad, “and one of the most famous guitar solos.”
But even more than Paul’s knack for the right riff, his desire to achieve new sounds would drive his career. After experiments as a child in amplifying his guitar’s strings with telephone parts and a phonograph needle, then a railroad track, he eventually arrived at his solid-body prototype: six strings and a pick-up mounted on a four-by-four, with detachable curved sides to make it look more like a standard guitar. After his “broomstick with a pick-up” finally attracted the interest of the Gibson company, the instrument reached its apotheosis with the late-1950s Gibson Les Paul “sunburst” red-orange models. In the hands of such legends as Chuck Berry, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, it became rock ’n’ roll’s most iconic and enduring instrument.
“Les Paul: Chasing Sound” also details Paul’s invention of sound-on-sound recording, or “overdubbing,” as revolutionary a development as the solid-body electric guitar. By adding an additional record head to his first tape machine, Paul was able to record his own playing, then go back and dub a second track over the first, ad infinitum. He and his wife, Mary Ford, created the first landmark of this technique with their iridescent “How High the Moon,” a 10-guitar, 12-voice overdub and a blockbuster hit that influenced a generation.
Paul and Ford — better known as simply Les ’n’ Mary — achieved great success together in the 1950s, selling 20 million records, including “Tiger Rag,” “Vaya Con Dios,” “Mockingbird Hill” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Among the archival clips in “Les Paul: Chasing Sound” is footage of the two at home where they recorded many of these hits on machines Paul built himself. “It’s a dream to find a partner like I found,” says Paul, reminiscing. Though they eventually separated, and she died in 1977, Paul and Ford are united forever with their shared star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Not long after Paul gave his guitar to rock ’n’ roll, the new music’s explosive power made his own efforts seem quaint and he faded from the spotlight. In 1976, however, he triumphantly returned, winning a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for Chester & Lester, a duet album with fellow guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins. In 2005, two more Grammys followed for both Best Rock and Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
As he packed his bag for the Iridium each Monday night, Les Paul included hearing aids along with guitar picks. But he still had perfect pitch — and an insatiable desire for the perfect sound.