Remembering Les Paul, On What Would Have Been His 100th Birthday
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Les Paul was born 100 years ago today. He spent his life playing guitar, inventing guitars to play, and inventing devices to record himself on. He invented the solid-body electric guitar, overdubbing, reverb and multi-tracking, inventions that helped make rock 'n' roll possible. As a musician, he usually stuck to jazz and middle-of-the-road pop. In the 1950s, he had several hits with his wife, Mary Ford, including “How High The Moon,” “Vaya Con Dios,” and “Bye Bye Blues.” Les Paul died in 2009 at the age of 94. We’re going to hear an excerpt of the interview I recorded with him in 1992. He was still performing and was living in New Jersey in his home that had four recording studios. He used one of them to talk with me. We began with his 1948 recording of “Lover” recorded in his garage. He describes it as the first recording that combined all his inventions and recording techniques into one bag of tricks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Les Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. So is that you playing all the parts?
LES PAUL: Yes.
GROSS: Was this the first record that you over-dubbed on?
PAUL: Oh, no. No, I started it in 1933. I started it in the '20s by punching holes in my mother's piano rolls, but I did it because the rhythm guitar player and bass player would go home, and I'd say darn it, I wanted to have them play "Lime House Blues,” and I'd say, well, as long as they're not here, what I'll do is I'll play the bass, and I'll play the guitar, and, you know, do that, but I never recognized that that could be such a tremendous tool.
GROSS: What was different on this recording of "Lover" from anything that you'd ever done before?
PAUL: Well, the sped-up sound, the echo, playing the bass line, making a guitar sound like a bass. This is the first time in history that anybody had ever done anything like that. And then to speed the guitar up and slow the guitar down, and you get all these different sounds by muffling your strings with your wrist, and these were all new things to be exposed to the world. And of course, I had my problems because so many people weren't ready to accept it.
GROSS: So on "Lover," the high, fast, trebly sounds that we hear, that's a sped-up guitar?
PAUL: Uh-huh, along with the normal guitar. The whole idea there is to be able to get octaves and to go an octave below and an octave above and to do all the harmony parts and everything, you know? And that was not the very first record I ever made that way, but, like I say, it was the first - that was the first one to come out. And that came out about a week after I had an automobile accident, where, for two years, I was to be in the hospital just in a basket (laughter). Everything, everything I had was broken, and I was in bad shape for about two years. So I had a lot of time to think, and I unfortunately didn't have that many records in the can, so to speak. What I had are records that were completely done except for the last part, which was the melody. And the reason I left that melody off is I figured that every week that went by, I got better. And if I got better, why, I had newer ideas. And so I'd leave that last part off. And after the automobile accident, I had to do the next recordings in a cast, a body cast. And so with one arm fixed right up even with my face, the only thing I could move with my right hand was my thumb. So I put a thumb pick on that, laid the guitar, and I had a rack built to hold the guitar horizontal, and it laid there flat. And I just stood up and played my part, and that's how I made the parts for the next four or five records.
GROSS: This might be the dictionary definition of obsessive.
PAUL: Boy, I'm telling you, you learn in a hurry to live with the obstacles, and they can be overcome.
GROSS: Now, let me get to one of the hits that you had. Let's talk about "How High The Moon," which you recorded with Mary Ford, one of your big hits.
PAUL: Thank you.
GROSS: Let's hear some of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HOW HIGH THE MOON”)
MARY FORD: (Singing) Somewhere there's music, how faint the tune. Somewhere there's heaven, how high the moon. There is no moon above when love is far away, too, till it comes true that you love me as I love you. Somewhere there's music, how near, how far. Somewhere there's heaven. It's where you are. The darkest night would shine if you would come to me soon. Until you will, still my heart, how high the moon?
GROSS: How would you record Mary's voice to get that echo?
PAUL: Well, that was something that I spent two years trying to find out, find - I didn't want reverb like an empty room. I didn't want Carnegie Hall. I didn't want that sound. I said to my friend, very dear friend, he and his girlfriend - Mary was my girlfriend - and myself, and a fellow named Wally Jones. We were all sitting in a little tavern at Santa Monica and Western out in Hollywood. And Lloyd was arm-wrestling with me, and we had a pitcher of beer and some popcorn, and we're watching the fights on Friday night. And he pulled my arm down real easy, and he says, Les, you're not concentrating. You're usually pretty rough to bring that arm down on. And I said, well, I'm thinking of that echo, and I said, I haven't figured that delay out yet, like, I haven’t figure it out. And he says, well, you're still worried about that thing? And I says, yeah, I need it. I need it, and I don't know how to get it. And he says, well, explain it to me again. And so this night, Lloyd, I explain it to Lloyd again. I says, picture that you're on the Alps. I say hello, hello, hello, hello. And I said, I want it to repeat, and I want it to repeat, and I want the delay and the decay, I want to be able to vary it. And lo and behold, he says to me, you mean like putting the playback head (laughter) behind the record head? Oh, boy, I threw $10 down on the table. I said to Wally, pay the bill and bring the girls, you know? And we left him with a $10 bill and the girls and the beer and the popcorn and the TV. We're gone. And by the time they got home, you could hear all over the neighborhood - hello, hello, hello, hello, you know?
PAUL: And we'd found the echo, the disc delay.
GROSS: You know what I want to know? Why did you want to have echo on her voice?
PAUL: Oh, that's interesting because the - I felt as though when you play the note dry, just dead, it just drops like a rock, and it ends right there, and a lot of times you'd like to have that note hang on after you've left it and go to the next note. So you have command over what you wish to do. And, in this case, I didn't want that note to say, hey, and just go on, like Carnegie Hall. I wanted to go, hey, hey.
PAUL: See? And now, if you want, you put a little tail on it. You go hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. You know?
PAUL: And, you know, it gives you such command of so many things, the toys to work with. Today, they're not - I call them toys because the kids, they have all these little boxes that you can go in and buy in the store. When I was a kid and I visualized this thing, the reason I had to invent it is because you couldn't buy it in a store. If I wanted it, I had to make one.
GROSS: Les Paul, recorded in 1992. He was born 100 years ago today. He died in August 2009. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR…
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “INSIDE OUT”)
AMY POEHLER: (As Joy) Do you ever look at someone and wonder, what is going on inside their head?
GROSS: The new Disney Pixar animated film, “Inside Out” is all about what goes on in a child’s brain when it’s controlled by joy, fear, disgust, anger and sadness. Each of those emotions are voiced by a different actor. Amy Poehler is the voice of joy. I’ll talk with Pete Docter, who directed “Inside Out,” as well as “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up.” Join us tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.