His name is on the classic Gibson guitar and his role in the development of the electric guitar, as well as in the creation of multi-track recording and overdubbing, is indisputable. But even though he spent the last two-plus decades of his life holding forth, as much as raconteur as musician, on Monday nights (Fat Tuesday's and, later, Iridium), Les Paul, who died at 94 last summer (2009), won't be remembered as a jazz musician. His musical tastes ran closer to another Wisconsin native, Liberace, than to any jazz immortals, including Nat King Cole
(in his role as jazz pianist), with whom he appeared as part of a band at the inaugural Jazz at The Philharmonic concert in 1944.
Paul was a very good jazz guitaristthe best evidence, two tracks from that JATP concert, can be heard on Pickin' & Swingin' 1937-1947
, the last of these three CDsbut his muse beckoned him in other directions, mainly toward the multi-tracked guitars and vocals of Les Paul & Mary Ford, a pop hit-making machine in the pre-rock '50s, producing Top Ten jukebox and radio hits like "Mockin' Bird Hill," "How High the Moon," "Vaya Con Dios" and "Hummingbird." By himselfmore correctly his many, overdubbed, selvesPaul also produced instrumental hits ranging from the jazzy "Lover" and "Caravan" to the accordion standard "Lady of Spain" and other novelties. Throughout those hit years, copiously documented in the 52 tracks of the two CDs, The Capitol Years 19481952
, Paul exploited the gimmicky aspects of his electric guitar and overdubbing: fast overlapping runs, tinkly chiming and, most gratingly, a penchant for making his guitar sound like a calliope or cheap electric keyboard. Like Liberace, he seems to have enjoyed dazzling listeners more with technical flourishes and wow-inducing tricks than with musical substance. In short, there was a lot of the cornball in those records. Pre-rock pop of the '50s doesn't hold up well, although the jazz-pop of the era does. Paul and Ford made some good and a lot of forgettable, pop records, but they didn't approach the best jazz-pop of the time and listening to so many of their sessions back-to-back can be excruciating unless you have a thing for nostalgia.
To hear how good Paul could be with singers, in a less gimmicky way, try the early stuff on the third CD, where Helen Forrest
, the big band singer, is more memorable and hip, in "Baby, What You Do For Me" with Paul's Trio, than is any Mary Ford vocal. Paul's straight, jazz-inflected electric guitar is also a perfect foil for Bing Crosby
, The Andrews Sisters and even The Delta Rhythm Boys, a black harmony group. The CD also has early, countrified Paul, recording as Rhubarb Red and tracks by his jazzy trios of the later '40s, where he indulged in Western Swing as well as a non-overdubbed "Caravan," superior to the Capitol hit version, which shows off his jazz chops almost as well as his solos on the JATP tracks. It all makes the early music on Disc Three a tantalizing glimpse of a different Les Paul, a guitarist more interested in jazz than technical wizardry.
Disc One: Lover; Caravan; Hip-Billy Boogie; The Swiss Woodpecker; Brazil; What Is This Thing Called Love?; Nola; Goofus; Little Rock Getaway; Tennessee Waltz; Mockin' Bird Hill; How High the Moon; I Wish I Had Never Seen Sunshine; The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise; Just One More Chance; Jazz Me Blues' Josephine; Whispering; Jingle Bells; Tiger Rag; I'm Confessin'; The Carioca; In The Good Old Summertime; Smoke Rings; Meet Mister Callahan; Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me; Lady of Spain. Disc Two: Bye Bye Blues; Deep in the Blues; Mammy's Boogie; My Baby's Coming Home; I'm Sitting on Top of the World; Sleep; Vaya Con Dios; Johnny (Is the Boy for Me); Don'cha Hear Them Bells; The Kangaroo; I Really Don't Want to Know; I'm A Fool to Care; Whither Thou Goest; Mandolino; Song in Blue; Mr. Sandman; That's What I Like; Hummingbird; Amukiriki (The Lord Willing); Magic Melody; Texas Lady; Moritat; Nuevo Laredo; Cicno Robles; Put A Ring On My Finger. Disc Three: Just Because; Deep Elem Blues; Out of Nowhere; Begin the Beguine; Dream Dust; Dark Eyes; Blue Skies; Baby, What You Do For Me; It's Been a Long, Long Time; Rumors Are Flying; What Would It Take?; Steel Guitar Rag; Guitar Boogie; Caravan; Suberterfuge; Melodic Meal; Hand Picked; At Sundown; Coquette; I Found a New Baby; Danger, Men at Work; Short Circuit; Body and Soul; Rosetta.
Les Paul: guitars; Les Paul, Mary Ford, Jim Atkins, Helen Forrest, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, The Delta Rhythm Boys: vocals; Nat Cole, various others: piano; various bass, drums and JATP 1944 session players.