By John Benson
A tribute concert will feature the electric guitar icon and other Rock Hall inductees.
An original guitar hero, Les Paul is credited with far-reaching innovations that include overdubbing, multitrack recording, delay-phasing effects and more.
It’s for this reason the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is celebrating his life and achievement with the 13th annual American Music Masters tribute concert “The Wizard of Waukesha: The Life and Legacy of Les Paul,” which takes place Saturday at PlayhouseSquare’s State Theater in Cleveland.
This special night features live performances from Rock Hall inductees James Burton, Billy Gibbons and The Ventures, along with Jennifer Batten, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Eric Carmen, Dennis Coffey, Lenny Kaye, Steve Lukather, Barbara Lynn, Lonnie Mack, Katy Moffatt, Alannah Myles, Richie Sambora and Slash. A 1988 Rock Hall inductee, Paul is expected to perform. Each artist will be playing either Paul material or songs from their past that exemplify the legend’s influence.
So what is it about Paul’s legend, which began in the ’40s playing with then wife and singer Mary Ford and continues today, that brings out such big names for a special show?
“I don’t know, but I’m very grateful,” said Paul, calling from his New Jersey home. “When I did those records, no one had ever made a multiple recording where one person plays all of the parts. So that was highly new to the world. Then people started to do the sounds with the guitar like I did and applied it to rock. And not only did they do what I did but they took and made their own thing.
“So the Jimmy Pages, Jeff Becks and Jimi Hendrixes took those licks, runs and sounds and added with the pedals the sounds that I created, which is the reverb, fade and echo. They added all of those sounds to the recordings and their style of playing, which was an extension of what I have done.”
When Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora talks about his 93-year-old friend Les Paul, with whom he’s been known to drop in and jam during the legend’s ongoing weekly gigs at New York City’s Iridium Jazz Club, it’s as if he’s talking about a family member.
“I guess you could say Les was like the Jimi Hendrix of his day,” said Sambora, calling from Los Angeles, Calif. “The stuff he was doing back in the ’40s and early ’50s, it was like he was Hendrix. He had all of the tricks, and was pulling out all of the stops. He had all of the licks, and when you heard it, it sounded like it came from outer space.
“He was the innovator as far as guitar players go, besides having to do with inventing the electric guitar and inventing multitrack recordings and a host of other things. But the impact on the music industry, honestly it’s that of legend for sure.”
It’s safe to say for the casual music fan, Les Paul is somewhat of an enigma. More than likely they know a popular guitar is named after him, but his importance in the development of rock ‘n’ roll is likely overlooked.
“I think they know he’s important because of the electric guitar, and I think that maybe what’s tricky there is the word enigma,” said Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum VP of Education and Public Programs Lauren Onkey, “He never really played rock ‘n’ roll, so if you heard a Les Paul and Mary Ford record, you maybe can’t make the sonic connection to rock ‘n’ roll in the way that if you heard Muddy Waters or Jimmy Rodgers records, previous American Music Master honorees.”
She added, “Like Slash said, the whole generation of guitarists is really impossible without him. You can’t in some ways imagine the rock ‘n’ roll guitar without some of the innovations that Les Paul created. A lot of people might have misunderstandings about that, and I think that’s the point of American Music Masters. It’s not just to put on a concert, but really to tell the artist’s story for a week of events from a variety of different angles.”
The weeklong American Music Masters series “The Wizard of Waukesha: The Life and Legacy of Les Paul” celebration varies from guest speakers and performances to movie screenings and exhibits (see sidebar).
The appeal of the annual American Music Masters series speaks to the heart of what most Northeast Ohioans expected from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. While the induction ceremonies have been mainly in New York City, with Cleveland hosting the next big soiree April 4 at Public Hall, it’s the institute’s yearly tribute concerts that bring in some of the biggest names in the music industry.