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Inventor/performer Les Paul's death marks end of musical institution



Les paul The first time I saw Les Paul in action years ago, I didn't even know his legendary guitar was named after an actual person -- let alone realize that guy was still alive and performing.

If felt like learning there was an actual person named Frigidaire or Kleenex.

As long as I'd been a musician -- I'll celebrate 30 years seriously plugging away at it in December -- the Gibson Les Paul had been an institution in pop music; the weapon of choice for everyone from Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page to Peter Frampton.

Jimmy Page-1 But watching Paul produce waves of sound from one of his guitars hooked up an early version of a tape delay echo effect -- yup, he invented that, too -- I realized one man had actually put together the instrument so many found so indispensable. It was like discovering one man had invented the drum set.

Now that amazing intellect has been stilled forever, with Paul's death today at the age of 94 from pneumonia.

Born Lester William Polfus, in Waukseha, Wis., on June 9, 1915, Paul first tinkered with musical invention sat age 13, trying to amplify his acoustic guitar with an old telephone receiver.

Eventually, he would invent the solid body electric guitar, the method of assembling a recording by taping individual performances separately (called "overdubbing") and more.

Besides an amazing knack for inventions, he was one hell of a guitar player, holding his own in recordings with Chet Atkins and amassing more than 36 gold records

I actually had the pleasure of watching Paul perform six years ago during a visit to New York music haunts that became a story for our Travel section. Then age 88, Paul was holding down his regular gig at Manhattan's Iridium Jazz Club, a basement-level performance space with a drink minimum and tables pushed right to the stage's edge.

That night, his array of guest stars included a tap dancer and a blues guitarist -- both talented and surprising. But Paul was the biggest surprise, holding court with a smile and talent for making fun of his own advanced age.

"If I did just one chorus of that, they'd have to move my bathroom closer to my bed," he cracked, after the tap dancer was done. "Of course, it might be worth it."

RIP to a musician's musician -- the man whose dreams fueled a million platinum records and a trillion string bending guitar solos.

Sample a bit of his magic here:

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:00pm]


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