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A 90th birthday gig for innovative Les Paul

June 08, 2005|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Two hours before show time, the band at the Iridium was sound-checking with a song that's been around awhile, "Misty," the singer going "I'm too misty / And too much in love" before the lead guitarist took over, the fingers of his left hand sliding down the neck of the electric guitar to end the tune with a flurry of high notes, a little show-off riff.

Monitoring the rehearsal, back near the entrance to the basement club, was a sound man a bit older than you normally see, a fellow with a cane beside him, needed since he lost a foot to diabetes. When the guitarist was done, the 64-year-old technician with the cane called out to him:

"That sounds good, dad. It's a birthday gift -- you've got those fingers movin'."

Onstage, Les Paul ignored the compliment from his son, Rusty, and worked through the end of "Misty" again and again, half a dozen times in all. Then he put his guitar on his padded stool and headed to a back room, for customers were coming down the stairs from Broadway and starting to fill the club a few blocks above Times Square, there to hear, in person, still alive, the man they bill as "the father of the electric guitar."

Les Paul turns 90 on Thursday, and however much he insists that birthdays are best passed without a fuss, that's not how this one is being played out. Two Les Paul books are coming out, an autobiography and a biography, and two albums, a reissue of hits he produced half a century ago with his late wife, singer Mary Ford, and a new one of collaborations with the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Sting.

Paul will be getting a lifetime achievement award too, on Thursday, from the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, and then there's a "90th Birthday Salute" at Carnegie Hall on June 19, featuring many of his collaborators on the new "friends" album, that concert sponsored in part by the Gibson guitar people, who have made a fortune off his name -- just as he's made a fortune off them -- over the last five decades. Oh, yes, they'll be issuing 12 new "special edition Les Paul custom guitars," one a month, in another commemoration of his 90th.

"What I do on my birthday is usually forget it," Paul said minutes after finishing the sound check at the Iridium, where he performs two shows every Monday night. "It's the people around me and money. They figure they can make a buck."

He's not about to protest too much, of course, given how those guitars are one reason he has a home in New Jersey with a modest 34 rooms and is able to play, at 90, merely for fun and sanity. He looks forward to these hours in front of audiences, Paul says, "like it's an ice cream cone for a little kid."

He does quibble with his son, though, about those hands working well.

"No, it's not true, they're not working great at all. Don't tell him," Paul said, launching into a lecture about "the way the arthritis is," how calcification works and how cortisone shots don't really help, "and so I've got this -- I've got claws, OK," and how eventually his hands will freeze. The same cursed disease landed his mother in a wheelchair by the time she died, he noted, at "101 and a half."

Paul does not pretend that he can play anything like he did as the young hotshot from Waukesha, Wis., who wowed 'em in the '30s at Chicago's mob hangouts. He did not actually go head to head with Clapton et al. for the new "friends" CD, his first real new album since his "Chester & Lester" collaboration with Chet Atkins in 1975 -- his 2005 collaborators recorded their sides in a studio, and Paul added his later, at his mansion-studio in New Jersey, using modern versions of the overdubbing technology he pioneered ages ago for Bing Crosby.

Paul credits a nurse for giving him the wisdom to accept the gnarly hands that make it impossible for him to play chords any longer. The nurse, who appeared like an apparition when he started doing Monday nights at this club in 1996, "came down to the bar prior to the show and she said, 'I didn't come down here to catch your show. I came down here to talk to you.' And I said, 'Oh? Shoot.' And she says, 'Look, you're 80 and you can't expect to do what you did at 20. And the people who are sitting down here nine chances out of 10 don't know how you played when you were 20. So play how you play now and don't compete with yourself.'

"I said, 'That's easy to say, but hard to do.' She said, 'That's up to you,' and she got up and walked out."

When he thinks back on his life, Paul said, he most often goes back to one period, and it's not the '50s, when his guitars sprung on the market and he had his hits and TV show with Mary, before rock 'n' roll changed everything. He finds himself reminiscing instead about the stretch from 1942 to 1948, when he was in Los Angeles, not far from the Sunset Strip, and inventing things in his garage studio, like his multi-track recorder for Bing and his own "sound on sound" style.

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