The Jazz.com Blog
August 13, 2009 · 0 comments
The music world is mourning the loss of guitarist Les Paul, who passed away earlier today at age 94. Jazz.com’s arnold jay smith, who played a key role in luring Paul out of retirement and back on to the stage, shares his recollections below. T.G.
One evening in the late 1970s I received a call from a friend who was to begin booking shows at a cellar club in Gramercy Park called Fat Tuesday’s. He was young and had little experience in either running a club or anything to do with jazz, period. Seems his father had bought him the room.
“AJay.” His voice had an urgency to it. “I’m booking Fat Tuesday’s and I know you did some publicity here. I need someone with ideas as to talent. Do you want to join me?”
The first bookings were your usual jazz-ers, nothing spectacular. But we were getting good notices. Not too long into the gig he asked me what I thought of Les Paul, who had been retired for some time. I wasn’t encouraging until he said that Gibson wanted to sponsor a month of Monday’s and would offer a Les Paul model guitar as a weekly door prize. I jumped at the chance to bring young non-jazz people into the club. Most guitar players—especially those who played the Gibson Les Paul—were rockers. There was a catch, however.
“Les needs to be encouraged. He’s reluctant to come out, what with his arthritis and all,” I was told. I only knew him casually from a New York City tour he did years prior with George Benson. But I called and he answered.
The obituaries and appreciations say that it was Les who was looking for a small boite to play in, make all the mistakes he would and still, in effect, come out of retirement.
“Yeah. OK, A month of Mondays for Gibson works for me,” Les told me. No question of what he would or would not be paid, only, “Would I be picked up and returned home? I go to sleep early these days.”
That weekly gig lasted until Fat Tuesday’s closed years later and was followed by the Iridium gig until he went into the hospital for the last time. Along the way we celebrated his birthdays to ever increasing crowds. The lines spilled onto Third Ave and around the corner in all kinds of weather. Les would not leave until everyone of his young fans got into the small club. He would affably sign posters, guitars, programs, napkins, LPs. (I once saw him sign a cast on a guitarist’s plectrum arm.) He had a joke for everyone who said something nice. Oh, yes. He changed his sleeping habits.
If there weren’t causes for celebration we would invent them: the (fill in the blank) anniversary of some recording, LP, or tune. We’d get ASCAP, or BMI to join us in presenting Les Paul with a plaque for the occasion. We once got Mayor Ed Koch to declare a “Les Paul Day,” The occasion? The first anniversary of hs first gig at Fat Tuesday’s. And the fifth. Tenth.
During one of a phalanx of telephone conversations made to keep Les interested in working through his pain we talked about Mary Ford and their collaborations. “Do you think there’s an anniversary in there somewhere,” I asked. “When did you two first get together in your garage to do the overdubbing?” Les gave me the date which was a couple of years short of a round number. “Do you think it was 40 years ago that the two of you first talked about it over breakfast.” Silence . . . then: “You know it was 40 years ago that Mary and I first thought of overdubbing.” He got it. It was a grand celebration with more plaques, politicos, and a cake, shaped like a Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty. The topping was pure bittersweet chocolate. I can still taste it.
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