Thank You Les is a tribute album, and it’s a special one. It was organized by Lou Pallo – Les Paul’s close friend, co-guitarist and the man who persuaded Les Paul to keep playing guitar. It boasts a stellar line-up of guests, including Keith Richards, Steve Miller, Slash, Billy Gibbons, Johnny A, Arlen Roth and many more. A DVD of its recording is also out now. Lou Pallo – a great guitarist in his own right – explains all to Gibson.com.
Congratulations, Lou - with such a star cast, Thank You Les must have taken a lot of organization?
“It did. We started around March 2011. It took a lot of time to get everyone together – not all together at once, but just waiting for people who were on tour, whatever. If everyone had been around simultaneously, we could’ve finished it in two months.
“But it was easy, in the end. All the people on this album are professionals. Most recordings took half an hour to two hours. In that sense, it didn’t take long at all.”
How did you choose the songs and guitar guests?
“All the artists hugely respected Les. They’d come to see him play. They were friends of Les. Steve Miller was very close to Les – Steve is Les’s godchild. Keith Richards loved Les, Billy Gibbons, José Feliciano also did… I can’t say enough about the people who came to play on this.”
When did you start working with Les Paul? Is it true you persuaded him out of retirement?
“Yes. He did come back and do that Chester and Lester album (with Chet Atkins, in 1976). But he used to come and see me play - I guess he got inspired again. He’d soon be bringing his guitar and playing with me. I was local, 10 miles from his house. At first he’d just sit-in… but then ‘sitting in’ became 86 times in one year.
“Les suffered from arthritis really bad. But he loved an audience. So we talked, and then we started The Les Paul Trio to play in New York.”
And that’s how you properly started playing alongside Les Paul?
“Yes, Fat Tuesday’s club in 1984 was when we started in New York. Truth is, we never even rehearsed. Les would just turn up and we’d follow him. We never went to each other’s houses and say: ‘what should we play next week?’ When you’re working with professionals, it’s wonderful. Les would sometimes, mid-show, look over at me… and somehow I knew exactly what he was going to do. He’d smile. But he’d also try and trick us! Les would sometimes change key in the middle of a song, or even go into another song.”
What did you learn from Les Paul?
“Everyone learns from Les, whether they’re a guitarist, bass player or a piano player. First: the most difficult thing to play is melody. And play it correctly. When people leave a nightclub or a concert, they want to hum something as they’re walking out. Les was a master of that. Play a thousand notes? You can’t hum that.
“Second: showmanship. Les was unbelievable. He had such a rapport with the audience. He liked to be close to people, he wanted to talk to them as well as play for them. When we played at Guitar Expo [in Seville, Spain, Expo 92] in front of 20,000 people, he didn’t like that. A club of 200 people? He was right there. Les loved playing for people. He always made jokes and told stories. And the stories got more elaborate every week. Les was even great at gimmicks to cover mistakes. He knew it all… we all learned from him.”
On Thank You Les, Steve Miller plays “Nature Boy” together with “Mr. Day”…
“I wanted Steve to play “Nature Boy,” and Les loved that song. Steve himself suggested “Mr. Day,” which is a blues number. It maybe doesn’t have much to do with Les, but the two songs worked together, I think.”
And you got Keith Richards to plays and sing on “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”…
“I said to Keith: let’s do the Bing Crosby thing that Les always loved. Keith just went, OK! Keith has a very unique voice. I asked him to sing and I put the words on a music stand, and we made it loose. And Keith played lead guitar on that, I just backed him up. Y’know, Keith’s a great guitarist. He’s not just rock’n’roll, Keith loves the standards from the 1940s. And we had so much fun.
“Keith and I have worked together before, many times. We got a Grammy for the tribute to Hank Williams [Timeless, 2001], we played on that together. We’ve recorded a lot, dozens of CDs, at his house – standards to rock’n’roll. Whether that ever comes out, I don’t know. It’s just fun working with Keith, and he sang it beautiful. Keith is a sweetheart.”
The track with Slash, “Deep in the Blues,” is a curveball – Slash obviously knew and admired Les, but the guitar styles are different.
“Yes, but it worked! I started it, played the first two verses. Then Slash comes in and gives it his own take. Then we jam at the end.
Slash is an aggressive player compared to Les?
Oh sure, but it came out great. There’s a lot of radio play for that one at the moment. But, of course, I didn’t ask Slash to play any jazz standards. And he agreed with that!”
Another star, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, is on “September Song” and he shows another side to his playing…
“Exactly. Billy surprised the heck out of me. The first time Billy came in he said, ‘Hey Lou, we only do three chords. We do blues.’ And on the DVD Billy jokes that those three chords became 50 chords. Billy did a great job on “September Song.”
And for some Latin flavour, you’ve also got José Feliciano singing “Bésame Mucho.”
“José always did that with us (the Les Paul Trio) when he visited. I think we did only two takes for Thank You Les. When José walked out the studio, he shouted: ‘Lou, that’s the best one on the CD!’ He sings so well, plays so great. I just appreciate all these artists doing this… for me and, of course, for Les. What can I say? They all love Les.”
Thank You Les is available on CD and DVD documentary. For more, visit ThankYouLes.com. Gibson.com’s own Arlen Roth played on Thank You Les. Read Arlen Roth at the Iridium. And Arlen Roth with Lou Pallo.
Take a look at Lou Pallo’s Signature Les Paul here.
Photos: Arnie Goodman