They called him the Wizard of Waukesha, and we're not talking Harry Potter.
I'd first heard about Les Paul from my parents. My Mom played mandolin; my Dad was a jazz pianist, who raised me on Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. I remember listening to the famous guitar/vocal duets between Les Paul & Mary Ford, only later learned that Mary sang duets and trios with herself in songs like How High the Moon and Blue Skies, using the multiple tracks invented by Les, "the tireless tinkerer."
I knew many things about Les: that he was born Lester William Polsfusss in Wauksha, Wisconsin on the symmetrical date of 6/9 in 1915; that his nickname was Rhubarb Red; that his piano said he'd never make it in music; that he learned harmonica, guitar and banjo by the time he was a teen-ager; played with country bands and on radio shows with everyone from Louis Armstrong
to Nat "King" Cole
and that he experimented with reverberation, guitar amplification. Inventor Les used parts of ham radios, Cadillacs and a dentist's drill. After placing the telephone receiver under the strings of the acoustic guitar, he later placed a Victrola needle into the guitar to crank up the volume, which led to The Log, the first solid-body electric guitar.
But it wasn't until 1999, when I started attending Les' Monday night gigs at the Iridium, that I realized the down-to-earth grit and grace of Les Paul. Not only was he quick-witted and pithy, but he was a great raconteur. In a low-key and non-egotistical, no- nonsense style in total contrast to today's celebrity world of American Idol and E! Entertainment, he told tidbits of his life story. Once he talked about his relationship with Bing Crosby
, who gave him a tape recorder, which helped him create "tape echo" and multi-tracking. Another night he spoke humbly abut his right elbow, crushed in a car crash, and his miraculous doctor who set it at an angle to allow him to continue to play.
But most impressive was this musical giant's softspoken nurturing of young musicians. Every week at his NYC Iridium jazz club gig, Les invited onstage a blend of unknowns and renowned artists as part of his routine. (I too got several shots at performing comedy and song parodies, trading witty barbs with Les). I got to perform "It Had to Be Less" just months ago to a beaming Les backed by jazz bass great Jay Leonhart
(lyrics attached). Backstage I met some amazing artists, including baseball player/guitarist Bernie Williams
, as well as with lesser known but rich-toned saxophonist Tommy Morimoto
. It's way too seldom that musical giants act as mentors to struggling, up and coming artists. What should be mandatory is instead a rarity. Les was as unique and sincere a mentor as they come.
After the late show, Les would spend hours signing autographs on cd's, books and guitar necks; taking photographs and chatting with audience members and fans. Before and between sets, depending on his energy and mood, a lucky few (myself included) got a chance to sit and chat. One fine spring evening just this past May, I sat in the green room talking with Les, (dressed casual in his usual turtleneck and slacks) about both the philosophicalsimilarities between bliss and melancholyand the personal. We chatted about my Grandma Rose, who loved one of his signature songs, "Golden Earrings"; and about an ingenious idea suggested by my "inventor" Mom to solve the problem of tingling in her feet, something Les was complaining about. Les nodded, as if it was a secret code that all older, wiser people knew: The secret of the Socks.
Just this past June, on a fine spring Monday night, the eve of Les' 94th birthday, I was saddened to hear that Les was a no-show. I sent a birthday packet to Les and his son Rusty, the video engineer, archivist, and musician in his own right, whose birthday is exactly a week later. It included a musical tie and some comfy Cushy Socks.
Les' imagination, integrity, talent, persevering spirit, and encouragement of young artists was matched by his huge desire to spread the joy music, and to make people happy. One Monday night, he accompanied my backwards rendition of one of his faves, "Over the Rainbow." I felt like Dorothy, clicking my heels to happiness, having met the Wizard. He sure lived up to his nickname, this Waukesha Wizard, and we're not talking Oz. "It Had To Be Les"
Les Paul/sung to the tune of "It Had To Be You"
Original Lyrics by Randee Mia Berman It had to be Less/To lessen our Stress
Economy's down/We're all in a frown
Due to this mess/But Nevertheless
Well, I must confess
This is for sure; We now can endure
Since Less is more. Some others we've seen/Upon the jazz scene
Might play, pluck or strum/But most are humdrum
For nobody else keeps us so calm
He'd be a great date for the prom
It had to be Les/That's way more for Les/ It has to be Les. It had to be Less/To lessen our Stress
Economy's down/We're all wearing brown