Most people who hear “Les Paul” think of his hits with Mary Ford like “I’m Sitting On Top of the World” and “Vaya Con Dios,” or the majestic six-strings that share his name. If they’re musically informed, they also think of the studio innovator and TV and radio personality, and maybe the in-demand sideman who performed with Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
But only die-hard fans know of Les’ earlier days as a struggling player looking for a break in the jazz world, or his musical cowboy personality “Rhubarb Red,” let alone his experiences as a kid trying to find his way into music’s kingdom. Even his membership in big band leader Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians is a mere footnote in most testimonials to Lester.
What better an authority to remark on those early days then Les himself? I spoke with Les about those times in depth in 1992 when I helped a friend who booked a club called Nightstage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, schedule a date there for the Les Paul Trio, which had been holding down a Monday night gig for a little over a year at Manhattan’s Fat Tuesday’s. Eventually that NYC gig would evolve into Les longstanding run at midtown’s Iridium club.
Here’s what Les had to say about Les:
• Discovering the Six-string: “I Attacked The Guitar.”
“Ever since I was a freckle-faced, red-headed kid, I just attacked the guitar. I was terribly aggressive about it. There were certain things that, if they intrigued me, whether it was music or electronics, I just went for the throat.
“I’d take the plate off the light switch, and I’d have to get a shock to find out exactly what made that light light. My mother’s player piano — that came apart; the wind-up phonograph — oh, I had to take that apart right away. I was so curious, my brother thought I was nuts.
“Once I was sitting on the front porch when they were digging to put sewer lines into the house, and on lunch hour, the guy digging there had a harmonica and he played it. So I jumped off the porch and stared at that guy until the sewer digger says, “I think you want this.” He gave me the harmonica and my mother grabbed it immediately and boiled it. So I got a harmonica, and the harmonica and the piano — my first instrument — were a great combination, except that I had my back turned to people when I played.
“So I tried a drum. A drum didn’t work at all. It’s not musical. I tried a banjo. I tried a saxophone, but then I couldn’t play the harmonica. So it worked all the way down to the guitar.”
• Discovering Amplification: “A Deadly Weapon.”
“The guitar and the harmonica became my way of life, except that when I played drive-in restaurants nobody could hear me,” he says. As a teenager, Les played country music at burger-and-fries joints in his region of Wisconsin, around Waukesha.
“The tips were down, and the car hops would come to me and say, ‘You know, if you could just play and sing a little louder.’ That’s when I lifted my mother’s radio for a PA system and I took her telephone for a vocal mike. Lo and behold – the tips went up, but they complained that they couldn’t hear the guitar.
“Then I had to take my dad’s radio. I just took a phonograph needle and jabbed it into the top of the guitar, wired it up, and turned it on. And that was the beginning of the electric guitar for me. And that electric guitar — boy, I’m telling you, the tips went up and it became quite an argumentative subject. Many musicians said, ‘What in the world are you doing amplifying a guitar? You’re ruining the sound.’
“ The feedback problems were enormous. It was anything but high fidelity, but within a year’s time — working, working, working — we finally got the guitar to where it sounded pretty passable. By 1930, I headed to Chicago with it, via Springfield, Missouri, and St. Louis. I went to Bell and Howell and got a speaker with a long cable, in a case for a movie projector, so then I had a guitar amplifier with a handle on it.
“And that was the beginning, right there in Chicago, of the controversy when I played at the Bismark Hotel, and on NBC, and CBS radio. The hotels didn’t object: in the hotels everybody could hear me. But as far as the radio was concerned, the musicians were objecting. First of all, everybody says, ‘My God, he can play louder than any of us.’ The saxophone player’s turning blue, the drummers — I can drown them out. The amplifier was a deadly weapon.”
• The Big Break: “We Only Knew Two Songs”
Les’ first recordings in Chicago were under the name of his country music persona Rhubarb Red. He performed as Red on local radio shows. He also worked as a sideman in country bands and on a few blues studio dates, even as his passion for and commitment to jazz continued to grow. In 1937, he started his own jazz trio.
Les continues: “I remember standing in Chicago with the Hoosier Hotshots, Red Foley, Johnny Johnson — all these friends of mine, wishing my trio good luck. I flip the coin: heads, New York; tails, LA, but we’re going to go somewhere with that trio and electric guitar.
“It landed on New York. So the other two guys in the Trio —that’s Chet Atkins’ brother Jimmy and Ernie Newton the bass player — say, ‘Well, what are we going to do when we get to New York?” I said, ‘I know Paul Whiteman so well … forget about it. We’ve got a job immediately.’
“Well, I’d never met Whitman in my life, but I had to tell a little white lie or these guys would never have had nerve enough to come. Jimmy Atkins was married and this was quite a move for him, to quit his job. We were working on radio in Chicago and making a lot of money. I was forewarned that heading for New York and Paul Whiteman was going to be a train wreck.
But the guys believed me, and we worked our way to New York via playing theaters.
“We finally landed at the Chesapeake Hotel, and that’s where my two guys said, ‘Well Les, are you going to call your good buddy Whiteman?’ They just marched me right over to the phone, and I looked Whiteman up in the book. I called and the secretary says, ‘What is the name?’ And I started to say ‘Rhubarb Red’ — ‘cause that’s what I played under — and I stopped myself and said, ‘Les Paul.’ I said, ‘The Les Paul Trio.’ And she said, ‘He’s not interested in any other musicians. He’s very busy. Thank you and goodbye.’ And when she hung up, they said to me, ‘What did he say?’ I said, ‘They told me to get you guys together and come right over.’
“We didn’t even have guitar cases! We marched right up Broadway and go into 53rd and Broadway, the Ed Sullivan Building, on the side entrance. We get off the elevator, and it’s a hot day, and way, way down the hall I can see, in his office, the secretary and Whiteman. So I wave at him. Whiteman said something to the secretary and she closed the door. So, my two guys look at me, and I said, ‘Well, you can understand that his eyes are not that good. He just didn’t recognize me.’
“And right at that time, out of the men’s room, comes Fred Waring. So I walked over to Fred and I said, ‘Mr. Waring, my name is Rhubarb…uh, uh, uh…Les Paul, and I have a trio here.’ And he says, ‘Look, if you guys are looking for a job, forget it. I’ve got 62 Pennsylvanians and I’m having a tough time feeding them.’ I said, ‘Can we play until the elevator gets here?’ And he said, ‘I don’t think there is a law preventing you from playing. Go ahead.
“We knew only two songs, which we’d rehearsed for two years. I always said it’s better to have one good suit than to have four cheap ones. So while he’s waiting for the elevator, we played ‘After You’ve Gone.’ It starts out slow and we doubled the tempo like lightning. There was blood on the floor. The elevator gets there and Waring says to me, ‘Get in the elevator.’ And the three of us got in.
“We go into this enormous studio, and I’m looking at 62 Pennsylvanians rehearsing. And he says to them, ‘Stop the music.’ Then to us, ‘Play something.’
“So we plug the amplifier in the wall, like we did on Whiteman’s floor, and we play. The bass player had a piece of sandpaper on the bass, and when he came down to play ‘boom, chick,’ instead of slapping the bass, he had a wire brush from a drum that rubbed on the sandpaper, so we had a unique sound, And Jimmy Atkins sang very much like Bing Crosby. Right then and there, we were hired.”
• Big Band: “I Can’t Read Music!”
“One day I was supposed to have the day off and the phone rings and it’s Waring and he says, ‘is this the guest artist? Hey, you know you’re on in a half-hour? Didn’t anybody tell you?’ I say, ‘No, I’ll be right in.’ So I jump in the car, get down to the Vanderbilt Theater, and I don’t even have time to put my uniform on. I just put the jacket on, and the rest is Levi’s with a screwdriver sticking out of the back pocket. They got music written for me that’s four pages long and says ‘Melody in F’ on it. So I said to Frank Howard, the piano player — we’re on the air now, coast to coast — ‘my God, I never told Fred, but I can’t read music. Cue me when I’m supposed to come in, okay?’
“But what the piano player never thought to tell me was that Stinky Davis had made this arrangement, and he’s a clarinet player. He wrote it in B-flat. ‘Melody in F in B-flat! And, of course, I hit the first note, which is in F, because I’m in the key of F. So as fast as hell I heard it was B-flat and go right up there and play it. Luckily I knew the lead of the song. So I finished my part and it came off fine. I laid the guitar down and the piano players says, ‘You’re not done yet.’ And I say, ‘What happens next?’ He says, ‘You’ve got an eight-bar ending to play.’ I say, ‘What key is it in?’ He says, “The same key.’
“So at the end of the arrangement the band stops cold and I let go with the longest run that I knew. Went all the way down the guitar, all the way up the guitar, come down and hit a chord — but I still had a couple more bars to go. I went back up and hit another one, and the band hit their big chord, and it came off fine. I walked off and said, ‘Don’t ever tell me there isn’t a God.’
“I’m sitting backstage reading Dick Tracy in the dressing room, and Fred Waring came up and put his arm around me, and he says, ‘Without a doubt, you’re the greatest musician I’ve got. You read that off at sight. I’ve never seen anybody do that.’
“I realized that Fred couldn’t read music, either. That’s a true story. That time with Fred Waring was just the greatest education, the biggest break in my life.”