To say that music lost another of its heroes today seems a shallow understatement. But a visit to the Gibson guitar company’s website says it best, where a page-wide banner proclaims, “In loving memory of Les Paul, the world’s most influential, innovative guitar player and inventor.” Les Paul passed away on August 13th at the age of 94.
Les Paul had strong connection with Kalamazoo - or at least with one of Kalamazoo’s more famous manufacturers, the Gibson guitar company. Together, Les Paul and Gibson profoundly altered the face of popular music.
Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Les was already a professional performer by the age of 13. His guitar playing technique became second-to-none, but it’s said that a music critic changed the course of his life by suggesting to Les that his guitar should be louder.
During the 1930s, Paul worked up an electric prototype (affectionately called the “Log,” actually a pine board with homemade electric pickups!) and in 1941, presented it to the Gibson company in Kalamazoo. This first attempt was a miserable failure—Gibson laughed at him—but he never looked back. “I took the Log to Gibson and I spent 10 years trying to convince them that this was the way to go,” said Paul. By 1950, Gibson’s management sensed growing competition and according to Paul, said, “Go find the kid with the broomstick and the pickups on it!”
Eventually, Les Paul formed a partnership with Gibson that not only affected his own career, but dramatically changed the face of the entire music industry. Alongside the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson’s Les Paul model is perhaps the most widely known, highly acclaimed and best loved electric guitar ever made. Period.
“The men up at Kalamazoo are working overtime to fill all the orders…”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 1951
But Les Paul’s talent for invention wasn’t limited to the guitar alone. During his career, Paul pioneered such cutting edge technology as multi-track recording and overdubbing, plus commonly used sound effects like reverb and echo.
After cutting his teeth on the radio in the 1930s, Paul’s performance career skyrocketed during the 40s and 50s with partner Mary Ford. He produced his own television show in the 1950s, and did more recording during the 60s. In 1976, he released the highly acclaimed Chester and Lester, a country and jazz fusion album with Chet Atkins. Though his hands were nearly crippled by arthritis, Paul performed actively right up until the end.
A 2007 film, Chasing Sound, celebrates Les Paul’s 90th birthday by documenting some of his final performances and highlighting his incredible contributions.
According to Gibson, Les Paul is the only individual to share membership into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was also an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society.
“He put the tools in our hands,” says Keith Richards. According to B.B. King, “...he’s the Boss!”
Les Paul (Associated Press photo)
Kalamazoo’s annual Island Festival always features some of the finest reggae acts in the world. This year’s festival features a very special performance – Saturday night, Jamaica’s legendary roots reggae harmony trio Culture takes the festival stage. Creators of dozens of brilliant singles and long players since their formation in the 1970’s, they would be hailed as legends even if they’d never released anything beyond their very first LP, Two Sevens Clash, widely considered one of reggae’s true masterworks.
Culture’s lead vocalist Joseph Hill wrote the title track after having a vision of the year 1977 being a year of judgment on Earth (based on prophecies made by Marcus Garvey). A devout Rastafarian (along with his fellow band mates), Hill translated his vision of apocalypse into a song which became a massive hit in his home country in the early part of ‘77. So profound was its effect on listeners that, on July 7th, 1977 – the day of all sevens clashing - many Jamaican businesses stayed closed, and residents refused to leave their homes for fear of being swept up in the coming apocalypse. Though the infectious bounce of the song’s groove and its joyous musical hooks might strike non-believers as running counter to the subject matter, the celebratory sound really underscores the message of liberation that followers of Rastafari believe will come at the world’s end. That mixture of devotional lyricism and upbeat music and rhythm flows throughout every song included on the album.
Though Joseph Hill has passed on, his son Kenyatta has taken his place as Culture’s lead vocalist, alongside original harmony vocalists Albert Walker and Telford Nelson. Kenyatta has proven to be as dynamic a stage presence as his father, so Culture’s legacy will surely continue to grow, even as Two Sevens Clash has already guaranteed their place in the pantheon of reggae greats.
Two Sevens Clash
Sometimes you listen for fun, other times you listen to learn. The Library of Congress recordings of Jelly Roll Morton offers a little bit of both – actually a LOT of both. Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax is an amazing eight disk set, which presents for the first time, the complete recordings (including the spoken word segments) fully restored, speed corrected and remastered, along with a series of interviews and performances from 1949 conducted again by Alan Lomax, exploring the roots of jazz with Morton’s contemporaries. Rounder has long been acclaimed for presenting traditional American music with great attention to detail, and this is certiainly no exception. With 128 tracks in all, the set includes lavish liner notes, photos, letters, notes and more in both printed and digital form.
Recorded in 1938, these recordings offer more than nine hours of music and conversation with one of the self-proclaimed inventors of “jazz, stomps and swing.” Aside from great spontaneous performances of early jazz, ragtime classics, and a little dose of “them dirty blues” (hence the parental advisory), Morton tells the stories behind many of these tunes, and describes the people who inspired them. In what is perhaps one of the first true oral histories, it’s a fascinating first-hand account of the evolution of popular music, told (and played) by someone who not only witnessed it, but actually lived and breathed it. The following dialog is typical and opens the set…
”When I was down on the Gulf Coast in nineteen-four, I missed going to the St. Louis Exposition to get in the piano contest, which was won by Alfred Wilson of New Orleans. I was very much disgusted because I thought I should have gone. I thought Tony Jackson was gonna be there, and of course that kind of frightened me. But I knew I could have taken Alfred Wilson. So then I decided that I would, uh, travel about different little spots. Of course I was down in Biloxi, Mississippi, during the time. I used to often freq— frequent the Flat Top, which was nothing but a old honky-tonk, where nothing but the blues were played. There was fellows around played the blues like Brocky Johnny, Skinny Head Pete, Old Florida Sam, and Tricky Sam, and that bunch.” (excerpt from The Story of “I’m Alabama Bound”)
How fortunate we are to have documents such as this, which allow us to explore the roots of contemporary music and culture. It’s a fascinating set and well worth the time.
Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax