BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
Much ado has been made this year about the 100th birthday anniversary of legendary singer Frank Sinatra. While not dismissing the accomplishments of the “Chairman Of The Board” in any way, today is also the centennial birthday anniversary for someone who is not a household name like Mr. Sinatra, but someone revered by musicians and music fans internationally … the late, great Les Paul.
Born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Paul remained an active performer and inventor until shortly before his passing on August 12, 2009, at 94.
He was one of the primary inventors of the solid body electric guitar that bears his name; one favored over the years by the likes of the late B.B. King, Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Slash, Jeff Beck, Neil Young, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, U2’s “The Edge,” Joe Perry and Pete Townshend.
Paul was also one of the pioneers of multi-tracking, a technique he perfected not only with his guitar, but also with the vocals of wife Mary Ford on 16 consecutive 1950s top-ten hits like “How High The Moon,” “Vaya Con Dios” and “Mockingbird Hill.”
Until his passing in 2009, Paul was a regular feature every Monday evening at Manhattan’s Iridium Club, where people, many of them tourists, would line up prior to showtime, trying to get in to see the legendary musician whose shows were usually sold out.
I was very honored to have had the opportunity of interviewing Paul four times in his last two years…. And what a gentleman ! On two different occasions, we were talking backstage prior to showtime, when his dinner was brought over to him. Both times, I said, “I don’t want to disturb your dinner. Let me come back when you’re through,” but he insisted on talking with me while eating. He also was cordial to everyone I saw coming backstage before and after a show to get a photo with him or have an album or guitar autographed.
Among the many pearls of wisdom he imparted to me (for an article I did for “American Songwriter”) was, “A lot of people say, ‘Boy, I can’t wait until I’m 65.’ Then they go down to Florida and die a few months later. My philosophy is that, if you love your work, it’s not a dirty word. Find out what you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
I also asked his secret for staying in shape, active and creative at 93. He replied, “Well, first off, it’s no secret. I have health problems and had a lot of accidents. But probably the greatest part about it is that every time you get knocked down, you still have to find the will to get up and do it again.”
As to having audiences still flocking to see him, 70 years after he stated performing, he added, “It makes me happy that people still come and enjoy what I do. You get a standing ovation, and you just say, ‘Why me?’ “
Rest in Peace, Les.