Chasing Les Paul

Mar. 21, 2008
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Les Paul, the “Wizard of Waukesha,” is probably the single most important musician to emerge from Wisconsin. A crack player and an inventive mechanic of sound, he perfected the solid body electric guitar that bears his name, developed overdubbing and multi-tracking, and helped set the expectations for sound recording as we know it today.

The PBS program “American Masters: Les Paul—Chasing Sound” is out on DVD. It was filmed as its subject was turning 90 and reveals a good humored and physically spry man who still entertains every Monday night with a small combo at New York’s Iridium Club. Most of the audience members are young enough to be his grandchildren, although his show attracts its share of Boomer guitar heroes who admire Paul for his agility.

Clearly, much of the music Paul made with his wife Mary Ford during their hit parade years in the late 1940s and early ‘50s has limited appeal nowadays. It’s a bit like Lawrence Welk as produced by George Jetson, with the latter allusion helping explain Paul’s status as a grand elder of pop music. It wasn’t so much the music he played, despite his nimble-fingered fusion of country and jazz licks, as the groundbreaking way he made his recordings.

“Chasing Sound” includes vintage television footage of Paul and Ford, who crafted an image as the lovable eccentric couple whose job was to make records in their kitchen, living room and anywhere in their home where the acoustics made a swell echo. Paul was “mechanically inclined,” as they used to say. He was the musical version of the self-trained inventor, whipping up marvelous gadgets while puttering in his garage workshop. His inventions, especially his manipulation of the nascent medium of magnetic tape, changed not only the way sound recordings are produced but the way we hear music.


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