Russ Paul, Henry Juszkiewicz, Warren Haynes
When Les Paul passed away last August the music world lost a guitar legend, inventor and hit-maker. His son Russ, of course, lost a father. In honor of Father’s Day, Gibson.com talked to Russ about his father, the great Les Paul.
Were you aware of how loved you father was?
I always knew dad was a special man but it really hit home when he passed away. Boy, when he passed away, I had over 800 to 850 calls on my cell phone alone. And it was just people calling because they wanted to give their condolences.
Slash, when I saw him at the funeral, told me, “Don’t even mention your dad’s name.” I said, “Why?” and he said, “Because I will bawl like a baby.” He said, “I lost a friend, a great musician and somebody I looked up to.”
I couldn’t get in touch with Eddie Van Halen for three days. He would not talk to anybody. He just shut down. He said, “I just cannot believe this.”
That’s as nice of a tribute you can get for your dad isn’t it?
Oh, boy yes, I’ll tell you… I miss that man so much, you have no idea. You know? It is so hard. He left a big plate with a lot of goodies on it and he said, “Now you have to eat ’em because I’m not here to tell you.” He sat down at the table, many times often at night, and he would say, “How come all my buddies are gone and I’m still here? And I’m in my 90s already and I’m getting older and I don’t understand how all my buddies who are much younger are gone and I’m still here. What is the reason?” He couldn’t figure that out. I used to tell him that his name was just not on the list, so don’t worry.
He was famous for a long time. Was that difficult for you growing up?
I knew he was important, but it’s like everybody, the reporters, ask me that very same thing. They say, “How was it growing up in your time with your dad?” What was it like when I was a little teenybopper? I hung out with Bing Crosby’s kids and we would be throwing stones and stuff in the backyard while Dad and Bing were recording in the studio.
So that was normal to you, to be around famous people?
We have one of the photos of the L.A. studio in our archives and it just so happens, it has the tape machine in it that Bing Crosby brought over. Bing actually brought the tape machine to our house. So they dragged it in the back room and then put it in the studio in L.A. And it sits there no more than a few weeks and Dad has the thing set as a sound on sound machine (The beginning of multi-tracking technology that would revolutionize the record industry). That’s where his head was at. He was already out planning this machine that was far surpassed what was initially brought over.
Was he the kind of guy that would run downstairs and show you what he was working on or did he keep it all to himself?
Oh no, he was coming up with things all the time like the sound on sound machine or the little black box (a remote control box for a tape recorder mounted right in the guitar). He had that little black box laid all over the house and studio and he would do some tinkering with it and change speeds and all this stuff. And Mary said, “You ain’t going to get me to do anything with this. It ain’t going to work.” And she pretty much had him convinced for a short period and that it may not work out.
Our neighbor was going to have a Boy Scout gathering and so, the first night he tried it out was at a Boy Scout meeting by our house, and it worked perfect. Then, the next day they were due to play for the President. Mary said it worked here but it isn’t going to work there and Les said, “I guarantee it will work.” And he got there and it worked fine. I mean he was an inventor, a tinkerer, a musician, and an actor, writer – all of that rolled into one guy. And his head was going in a million directions at one time. All this stuff came out of freak things.
When he was a kid and a train went by, he would put his hands on the window and feel the vibration. And then would go to school and ask his teacher if he could learn more about vibration. And he got into that… it was one thing after another… he never stopped.
Do you think he was a genius like Einstein?
I would say so; it’s hard to pin it on him… I mean I would say he was. He would say no, that he had so much to learn, but his head was far more advanced than what anyone else was capable of. He wanted to know how the electricity went to the switch and how the electricity got to the bulb and how the bulb would light. This is where his head was at. Everywhere he learned. He built his first cutting blade from a Cadillac flywheel and a switch from his mother’s barn and stuff like that. He built two of them. He would experiment with mics and he would say I want to put a trumpet on there and have the singer touching their lips right on the microphone and people would say, “You can’t do that.” The engineer would say, “You’re going to blow the ribbon,” and he would say, “No, you won’t and if you do, I’ll put another one in.” But he was one that didn’t let the norm bother him. If it was a challenge, he did it or fixed it or had it fixed and continued on.
Until he passed away did he follow all of the innovations we have today like the Internet and e-mail?
Yeah. He used all the new technology but didn’t want to get stuck with it because he felt that if you spent so much time behind the screen, looking at a box all day, you wouldn’t get anything done. He used the Internet a lot to look up guitars, inventors, or a certain type of formula or whatever; get the information or print it out and go.
Right before he died, he was working on a Les Paul hearing aid…
Do you have a story about Les Paul that really captures the man?
Dad, the first time he met Django Reinhardt, was at the Paramount and he was there playing and Dad was upstairs shaving and he got a knock on the door. He says, “Who is it?” and security said it’s Django Reinhardt. And he says, “Sure, send him up with some beer.” A few minutes later there’s a knock at the door and there was Django and right behind him was Johnny Smith, who was Dad’s idol. And they just sat down and played the two guitars that were there. And I was talking to Johnny a couple of months ago and ask if he remembered, and he said he did. And Johnny is still around to remember that. Django, when he died, told his wife on his deathbed that the person who should get his guitar was Les Paul. He had nothing, no running water, totally broke. Yet he was considered one of the best guitar players in the world. To have somebody you respect so much and who plays a monster guitar and yet had nothing was real sad to Dad. So he wanted to make sure that Django’s family were taken care of. He got money from all the people that owed Django, about $75,000, I believe, and got his family electricity and a gravestone and took care of his wife.
Photo Credit: (top) Getty Images, (middle) Sandy Campbell