|Les Paul & Friends - American Made, World Played|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Stephen K. Peeples|
|Tuesday, 30 August 2005|
American music icon Les Paul, the legendary godfather of guitar design, amplification and multi-track recording, celebrated his 90th birthday June 9, 2005, and a bunch of his godchildren paid homage throughout the year to one of their greatest rock and roll heroes.
Among their tributes to the Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, also a recent Inventors’ Hall of Fame inductee, is backing him up on Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played, a single audio CD out on Capitol – Paul’s label for most of his career.
This is Paul’s first new album since RCA released Chester & Lester, his 1977 Grammy-winning swing/country/pop collaboration with fellow guitar icon, record producer and longtime friend Chet Atkins (the same sessions also produced its 1978 follow-up, Guitar Monsters).
Les Paul & Friends collects 15 unbridled, free-spirited performances
by rock and blues-rock superstars and upstart rollers who’ve learned a tricky lick or two from the master on the way to hitting the big time on their own.
All have obviously recorded on multi-track machines, probably Paul’s greatest legacy. Multi-track revolutionized the art, craft and business of music. Many others on the album have played some of their best-known work on Gibson Les Paul guitars, and know them to have as much musical character as its inventor has as a human.
Noted Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who joins Buddy Guy and Rick Derringer here on a salacious version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl”: “We all must own up that without Les Paul, generations of flash little punks like us would be in jail or cleaning toilets. This man, by his genius, made the road we still travel today.”
This time out, the rock and rollers let the riffs and solos rip while Paul kicks back, watching and listening to his prodigious progeny. You hear a lot more of them than you do Les; advanced arthritis in his hands and fingers limits his ability to shred like they do. Still, he occasionally throws a well-timed riff into the hot space between their notes.
Along with Richards, Guy and Derringer, the Les Paul & Friends lineup includes Jeff Beck and the late, great Sam Cooke, on Cooke’s “(Ain’t That) Good News,” Eric Clapton and Sam Cooke, on another Cooke classic, “Somebody Ease My Troublin’ Mind,” Peter Frampton, covering Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You,” ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, with a badass version of Moon Martin’s “Bad Case of Lovin’ You” (made famous by Robert Palmer), Aerosmith’s Joe Perry with Kenny Olson and Simply Red warbler Mick Hucknall, delivering “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” the pleading slow blues penned by Al Kooper for the Blues Project, circa ’66-’67, Steve Miller, launching a new version of “Fly Like an Eagle” (more on this later), Goo Goo Dolls lead singer/guitarist Johnny Rzeznik, juicing up U2’s “All I Want is You,” with Frampton sitting in, Bon Jovi/solo singer/axeman Richie Sambora, twisting up McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It,” Journey-man fretmeister Neal Schon with blues-rock belter Beth Hart, on the balls-out “I Want To Know You,” which they co-wrote with album producers Bob Cutarella and Fran Cathcart, blues whiz Kenny Wayne Shepherd with veteran saxman/vocalist Edgar Winter and singer Noah Hunt, offering an overwrought take on Derringer’s “Rock & Roll Hootchie Koo,” Sting and barely-legal blueswoman Joss Stone with Shepherd and session ace/Toto member Steve Lukather on guitars, with a sassy “Love Sneakin’ Up on You,” the Little Jimmy Scott/Tom Snow tune made famous by Bonnie Raitt, and guitarists Barry Goldstein and Hiram Bullock, with Winter on sax, covering “69 Freedom Special,” the Buddy Miles funk workout penned by onetime Miles sidemen Jim McCarty, Tom Hall and Bill Rich.
“These are all such dear friends of mine, people I respect very highly because they are just such great players, and there’s such of a variety of them,” Paul said on the phone from his home and studio in Mahwah, N. J. “And they all went for the idea!”
Said idea actually dates back at least a decade and a half. Les told me he was thinking about such a rock project in spring 1991, when I visited him in Mahwah to interview him for the 58-page booklet I wrote to accompany Capitol’s four-CD Les Paul: The Legend & The Legacy, the box set of classic recordings he and singer Mary Ford, his second wife, made for the label (now out of print, unfortunately). Lots of rock players he talked to were game, he said then, but no labels were biting. Capitol at the time wasn’t interested in anything new, just his catalogue.
The rock album idea made sense to just about everyone else even then, prior to the era of such tribute albums. In Paul’s presence, or when they sat in onstage with him, multi-platinum superstars like Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck
and Steve Miller acted like goofy star-struck favorite sons.
I saw it happen in the mid-’90s while on yet another biztrip from L.A. to NYC. Miller, who’d learned his first guitar chords from Paul, a friend of his parents, before he was in grade school, sat in with Les and his trio one Monday night at Fat Tuesday’s, the Manhattan nightclub. The two guitar stars had entirely too much fun together onstage, and the small but tightly packed audience loved every nanosecond. That was just one of many such priceless occasions, and they’ve kept happening since he moved his Monday night residency to the Iridium jazz club in 1996.
Paul’s rock album idea gestated well into the 21st century, until a new Capitol chief, Phil Quartararo, one of the few music-savvy executives left in the record industry, caught an Iridium show. The same light bulb illuminated over his head. Finally, someone who could actually get it done was interested. And at Capitol, no less.
“Phil said, ‘We have got to do something with you, Les – when was the last time you recorded?’” Paul recounted. “I told him Chester & Lester. Phil asked me if I’d like to go back in and record again, and I said, ‘I’d love to!’
“He said, ‘Okay, let’s start with all the guests you bring up on the stage. Who do you have the most fun with?’ I told him that even though [the Iridium] is a jazz place, the rockers are the most fun and seem to go over the best with the audiences.
“Then Phil asked, ‘Do you want to do a rock album?’ and I said, ‘Yes!’” Paul continued. “And my manager was turning green, ’cause he didn’t know where my mind was, but I was thinking about all these great players that at one time or another played a Les Paul guitar.”
Quartararo asked Paul to write up a hit list of his favorite players, then, with Paul’s blessing, brought in producers Cutarella and Cathcart to do the heavy lifting – making contacts, getting people into studios in Hollywood and New York, sending tapes and files cross-country and overseas for overdubs, then finally to Paul to add his licks. Quartararo served as executive producer.
“We let [the guest artists] pick their own songs, do what they wished with their own arrangements, use their own people, whatever they wanted,” Paul noted. “That makes this album very different. There was no one telling them what to do. They were free to do what they maybe couldn’t do on their own albums, but could do on mine.”
Sting indeed sounds set free singing “Love Sneakin’ Up on You”; Abe Laboriel Sr. handled bass duties in L.A., so all Der Schtingle had to do was wail his vocal track and send the files back to L.A., where an equally liberated Joss Stone showed why she’s the hottest young blues diva on the planet. It all sounds seamless, yet reading the credits, one wonders: which came first – the Sting or the Stone?
Paul’s own hot-wired Gibson is heard more prominently on a pair of tracks out of his own classic repertoire. The first is a new version of Duke Ellington’s immortal “Caravan.” Paul’s 1948 recording, completed after a near-fatal car accident, was one of his earliest multi-tracked instrumental hits. He laid down the final tracks with his right arm still in a plaster cast, but set in guitar-playing position, so in case the wing didn’t heal right, he’d still be able to pick.
47 years later, on this funkified take on the tune, Paul gets backing from session aces Laboriel (bass), Gregg Matheison (keyboards), Daniel Moreno (percussion) and Kenny Aronoff (drums), who also appear on several other tracks as core backing players. Other session mainstays include drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Shawn Pelton, bassists Will Lee and Nathan East, and keyboardists Lou Forestieri and Brian Mitchell.
Paul’s guitar is more up front on this tripped-out “Caravan,” and for the first time on record, he’s using a wah-wah pedal, an effect most people still living associate more with rockers like Hendrix, Clapton and Vaughan than with the pop, blues and jazz he’s best known for.
“It was pretty cool,” Paul said of recording his “Caravan” parts. “I’d tried a wah-wah back at the beginning of time, in the ‘40s, but there were already a few people using it. I wanted to be completely different from everybody else, so I figured I’d stay away from it.”
The second track with Paul more up front is a new take with the same rhythm section on the jazz “national anthem” “How High the Moon,” a # 1 hit for Paul and Mary Ford in 1951. Along with some of Paul’s signature lead guitar lines, this 2005 version features a second choice clip from Les and Mary’s ’40s-’50s radio show (the first clip leads off the album), plus vocals by Russian superstar singer/actress/model Alsou.
Aforementioned acolyte Steve Miller not only contributed a new version of his 1976 hit “Fly Like an Eagle” to Les Paul & Friends, he wrote the accompanying liner notes. “[Les Paul] invented the tool that made the Beatles’ recordings possible: multi-track recording,” Miller noted. “All the great modern guitarists – Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Jimmy Page, Link Wray, Duane Eddy, Eddie Van Halen, et al – have used and creatively profited from the music, stage craft, recording techniques, technological innovations and musical instruments created by Les.”
Without multi-track recording, Miller couldn’t have recorded his multi-platinum Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams albums – mostly alone at his farm studio – in the mid-1970s, either. Miller’s connection to Paul goes back to Wisconsin. Paul was born and mostly raised in Waukesha, near Milwaukee. Miller’s parents were old friends of Les and Mary’s; Steve’s father George, a pathologist, was best man at the couple’s wedding Dec. 29, 1948. The priceless piece of tape that opens Miller’s new “Fly Like an Eagle (2005)” was recorded that night; Steve was five.
“I knew Steve was a talented kid from the second he sat on the edge of the bed there and played the guitar,” Paul told me. “His mom and papa were at
our wedding, so we stayed at their house that night,” he recalled. “Steve had to go to the bathroom and there was only one. All of a sudden this little kid started ripping through our bedroom toward the bathroom.
“When Steve finally came out, I asked, ‘Where are you going, young fella?’ And he said, ‘Are you Mr. Paul?’ I answered, ‘Yep!’ and asked him, ‘Do you play the guitar?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m learning.’ I asked him if he had his guitar around, and he said, ‘Yeah!’ So I told him, ‘Well, go run and get it!’ Oh, he was all excited. So that was the beginning of it, and of course we’ve had a lot of fun over the years since then. Steve is a very dear old friend.”
Paul added it was “really nice” that Miller had written the liner notes. “Steve comes in [to the Iridium] about twice a year. Get to see him – get to see everybody – about twice a year,” he joked.
To these ears, the finest aural delights on Les Paul & Friends are the two cuts featuring Cooke, whose soulful vocal tracks obviously predate December 1964, when he was shot to death during an incident at a Los Angeles motel. Through a deal cut with Allen Klein’s ABKCO outfit, which controls the superstar crooner’s master recordings, the Les Paul & Friends producers got to build new backing tracks around Cooke’s vocals, which sound clean enough to have been laid down yesterday.
As icing, Eric Clapton added some inspired lead guitar to the bluesy “Somebody Ease My Troublin’ Mind,” and his fellow ex-Yardbird Jeff Beck spread hot licks on the jumpin’ “(Ain’t That) Good News.” I doubt you’ve heard Cooke backed by bands sounding this good and recorded this well.
“That’s my favorite track on the album,” Paul said of the Beck/Cooke collaboration. “Boy, Jeff’s just a great player, one of my favorites on guitar, that’s for sure. On my birthdays and things like that, he’ll fly over from London, and all of a sudden, there he is, very quiet over in a corner somewhere, waiting ‘til there’s room to play. That may not sound like Jeff to some, but he’s actually very bashful, very shy.”
Paul confirmed Jeff Beck was in fact one of the first “Friends” to sign up for this project. “That kid Beck says to me, ‘You better warm those hands up, ’cause this one’s a little snappy!’ – that’s a favorite expression of his,” he laughed.
Overall, Paul said he had a ball making Les Paul & Friends. “The [musicians] all played great – I was very impressed with their playing and the variety of stuff. Everyone was very enthusiastic about the album, and so am I. The reviews have been great – I’m knocking on wood here!”
Paul enjoyed several other tributes during his ninetieth year. On June 7, Capitol released an expanded version of its single-disc Les Paul with Mary Ford: The Best of the Capitol Masters audio collection. On Paul’s birthday June 9, Russ Cochran Publishing released “Les Paul: In His Own Words,” a limited edition autobiography with each numbered copy signed by the author. That night, Paul received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. 10 nights later, Gibson Guitars hosted “All for Paul: Les Paul’s 90th Birthday Salute” at Carnegie Hall, a star-studded celebration featuring many of the world’s greatest guitarists jamming and jiving with the master – a living icon who’s just as masterful at self-deprecating humor.
“If you can imagine someone ninety years old playing with rock and rollers – that’s as ridiculous as you can get!” Paul laughed.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the very things I thought were quite valuable for what I was doing – the solid-body guitars, multi-track recording, the echo, and the other ‘toys,’ as I call them – are now in everybody’s garage or basement or bedroom,” he added.
Gibson also released special editions of the Les Paul model during 2005. “Gibson is doing a wonderful job,” he said. “The Les Paul guitar is so big now – it’s just hard for me to imagine anything like this could ever happen. I don’t think there’s anyone I talk to who doesn’t love the guitar or play the guitar. It’s the number one instrument in the world, and bigger than at any other time in history. Of course, that makes me very happy.
“And if it wasn’t for all these young guys picking up on it, it never would have happened,” Paul noted. “So I’m always grateful to them and anyone else around who continues to carry that flag.”
Producers Bob Cutarella and Fran Cathcart and their team of engineers recorded and mixed the album’s tracks at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, East Side Sound in New York City, Instructo Corporation Studios in Mahwah, N. J. (Paul’s studio), Il Palagio in Italy and the Record Plant in Los Angeles, using a ProTools system.
The album’s straightforward stereo mix is fast and loose, mirroring the performances. Considering all the traveling around these tracks did as they were being built, they still sound like everyone was in the same studio at the same time. The downside is that it’s sometimes difficult to hear what Paul is playing. Ultimately, that’s okay. Les Paul & Friends not about Paul’s cascading thirty-second notes. It’s more about the friends attempting to pay back a huge debt to a mentor, and having a large time showing off everything they’ve learned from him.