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Published: 2009/08/26
by Randy Ray

"How High the Moon" – The Magic of Les Paul

“Now the village mission bells are softly ringing…” – “Vaya Con Dios (May God Be With You),” Les Paul and Mary Ford

Random memories of the guitar pioneer while revisiting The Legend and the Legacy …a man’s life is sometimes nothing more than a series of shakes on a kaleidoscopic toy. Within the strangely cinematic circular tube, one sees a series of colorful fragments that coalesce and then drift away, either forgotten, or replaced by another memory shard.


My young son sits mesmerized in front of the television watching a program about how certain incomprehensible, near miraculous, feats are performed. A masked magician shows, in great detail, how each “magic” trick is actually just that—a trick to fool the audience, and entertain, of course. My son breaks from his spell, leans back and asks: “That’s fake, but is there real magic?” I grin and reply, “Yeah, Les Paul.”


You can hear it almost immediately on “Lover,” a Rodgers/Hart track from the 1932 film Love Me Tonight. He races through the song at a breakneck pace, fingers fast as lightning, notes peeled off and tossed outwards as if his hand is on fire and the only way to stop the flames is to play as fast as possible until he hits the coda. And then he’s out.


Well He, in this case, was the guitar pioneer Les Paul who passed away on August 13 at the age of 94 after an incredible 80-year career re-defining what it means to play a block of wood with strings, stirring the heart, inspiring others to reach beyond themselves. The Wizard of Waukesha [Wisconsin for the geographically-perplexed] helped usher in the modern guitar sound with the Gibson Les Paul, and there’s been hell to pay ever since.


Sometimes known more for his innovative invention of the block of wood with strings, Paul is shamelessly overlooked and underappreciated at times when his recorded output is cued up. And this can be damaging to his reputation. One passage through the two-minute whirlwind that is “Whispering,” shows an artist paying homage to an old standard, and yet his waterfall of notes floats down upon the listener in colorful arcs of light that are both magical and almost sinister. How does the man make it sound so musical, and yet the piece has a powerfully mechanical heart? Ahhh…the inventor’s rub.


“Meet Mister Callaghan”—multi-tracked guitars rest atop a bass pattern that is gentle but elusive. In less than two minutes, Paul takes what could have been just a demonstration for early guitar overdubs (a phenomenon he would not only help introduce, but master, and deliver on a platinum platter to generations of future musicians), and methodically plays variations of the song’s hook until it rests within your curious psyche.


“Lady of Spain” follows the overdubbed hook variations but adds numerous twists with various modulated speed patterns on guitar while layering textures over each other, not exactly repeating, but placing each line so it is just off the center of each proceeding pattern, creating a new way to speak on guitar that wasn’t quite present in any other form.


“Bye Bye Blues” like many of his hits recorded with his then-wife, vocalist Mary Ford, features an infectious hook welded to a modern guitar riff. “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”—woos rather than flirts; it is filled with an intoxicating joy of life; bliss in 2 min.


Ahh…but it is the block of wood with strings that makes the man so interesting to most musicians. Indeed, Trey Anastasio, like Les Paul, wields his own unique axe, this time by a craftsman, and former sound man, Paul Languedoc. After Les Paul’s passing, the Anastasio-led Phish played “How High the Moon” on August 13, a song that they hadn’t played in nearly 20 years, but an appropriate choice for a band, like Paul, who are well known for their ability to provoke weird and exotic sounds out of traditional instruments.

And like Phish, Les Paul was involved in a bit of odd promotional shenanigans, as well, as he stated in the liner notes for a Paul/Ford compilation featuring the classic song:

To publicize “How High the Moon,” Jim Moran came up with the bright idea of launching a midget from a gigantic kite in Central Park! Moran was always after the big headline. But the cops came along and wouldn’t allow us to, because the midget might have fallen off the kite line and killed a baseball player. Didn’t matter, though. Our version of “How High the Moon”—the 76th, I guess—went straight to the top anyway.


“You play the guitar, right?” asked Steve Kimock. “No, I played drums,” said the writer.

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