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Les Paul: Living the Legacy

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007

"I looked at what he was doing, and it looked like it was more fun than anybody I'd ever seen, and that's what I wanted to do." So says guitarist Steve Miller, recalling a childhood memory that puts into words what is apparent on the smiling faces of pretty much every musician, engineer and producer shown listening to or thinking about Les Paul's innovations and explorations in "Les Paul: Chasing Sound."

The 90-minute documentary by John Paulson and James Arntz, shown recently as part of PBS's "American Masters" and coming out Tuesday on DVD ($24.99) with 90 minutes of extras, is loaded with adulation, and why not? Paul is one of the most significant musical figures of the 20th century, and if he'd never played a note, he'd still be a music legend for his inventions. Music producer Phil Ramone insists that not a day goes by when musicians and producers are not influenced by something Paul wrote, played or invented, which is why he's the only person to be inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Paul, the father of modern electric guitar with the iconic Gibson solid-body guitar that bears his name, fueled the rise of rock-and-roll in the '50s and '60s. He invented multi-track recording and overdubbing, as well as reverb and echo effects. And, oh yeah, he was a jazz guitar virtuoso and monstrously popular pop artist in the '40s and '50s with his then-wife, Mary Ford.

Speaking recently from his longtime home in Mahwah, N.J., Paul expresses appreciation for the film that captures his own unquenchable joy of playing his regular two-set show every Monday at the Iridium in New York City. "Chasing Sound" is built around Paul's 90th birthday celebration there in 2005.

DVD extras include more from the birthday celebration, vintage duets with Keith Richards, Kay Starr and Chet Atkins, among others, and classic Les Paul and Mary Ford TV appearances.

"These are things I didn't expect," he says of the film and the attendant renewal of interest in his achievements. "It's great that it's happening, in many cases letting youngsters know where it started from. It's good that we have a chance to explain how these things came about. I can't imagine that anybody knows who I am, that I have done anything or any of it. I think of it all as a dream."

Even now, watching Paul play with such engaging spirit, you'd never suspect he suffers from degenerative arthritis in both hands, which has caused him to adjust his playing but has not diminished it. Then again, this is a man who after a near-fatal 1948 car crash persuaded doctors to permanently set his shattered right arm and elbow at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar.

Paul credits his curiosity and desire to experiment with sound to his mother, who encouraged him from the time his first guitar arrived -- a $3.95 mail order from Sears, Roebuck and Co. As he took it out of the shipping box, a string twanged and his mother said, "Les, you sound great already!" Mother knew, even as little Les tested the limits: punching new holes and taping over old ones on her piano rolls or building an amplifier out of a radio speaker, a telephone, a cinder block and a broom. "Just because you couldn't buy something didn't mean you couldn't make something," Paul laughs, thinking back to ancient tinkering that played itself out years later as the solid-body guitar and multi-track technology.

"I was very blessed that I got what I got," Paul insists. "When I built any of these things, I didn't do what many inventors did, work hard night and day and try to patent things before they even invented them. To me, the only thing that was important was: Here's what I think should happen in order to get this, and to get this means you do this and this and all of a sudden, there it is. That's the way I go through my life -- if I make a hit record, it's a hit record right there; a week later, it's no longer a hit record and I'm on to another record and that one's going to be better than the last one. So the world turns."

"Chasing Sounds" has plenty of vintage clips of Paul's earliest performances with Rube Tronson and the Texas Cowboys, his hillbilly duo singing days with Sunny Joe under the stage name Rhubarb Red and his work with crooner Bing Crosby. It's particularly rich exploring Paul's partnership with Ford; there's a great showcase of the two building the chords and vocals on "How High the Moon," where his guitar becomes an orchestra, her voice a choir.

There's also plenty of contemporary interaction with the likes of Miller, Richards, Jeff Beck -- part of a legion of guitar-playing disciples ("I think I've played with every great guitar player that there is," Paul says, matter-of-factly noting that such encounters go back to his own idols and influences, Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt). Meanwhile, there's more tinkering with guitars -- there's always more tinkering -- and the Monday night Iridium shows. Paul thrives on it all.

"There's nothing worse for me than to get up and have nowhere to go but the bathroom," he laughs. "If I can get up and have a plan of so many things to do -- which I'll never be able to accomplish -- it gives me a lot of things to look forward to, to keep me so busy that day that I can't believe it's time for me to go to bed, and, my goodness, I haven't even begun to do all the things I wish to do."

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