On Thursday, August 13, 2009, Les Paul died from complications of pneumonia at a hospital in White Plains, NY. He was 94 and had lived an extraordinary life.
Paul had been an important figure in the music business since World War Two. He and his wife Mary Ford produced several hits in the 1940s and 1950s that included “Mockin’ Bird Hill” and “How High the Moon.” He earned 36 gold records and 11 No. 1 pop hits. He also played guitar with leading early jazz and pop musicians from Louis Armstrong to the Andrews Sisters to Bing Crosby. He played for Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. Among his many awards, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Had those songs along with his reputation as a guitarist been his legacy, it would have been sufficiently impressive. However, his contributions to the music and recording industries did not end there.
As he began performing in the 1920s, electronics were primitive and amplification was virtually non-existent. Unhappy with the limitations, Paul began experimenting with guitar amplification. By the early 1940s, he had built what may have been the first solid-body electric guitar. Eventually, these experiments played a key role in the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll when he teamed up with Gibson Guitar Corp. to help design a model that bears his name. An immediate success in the 1950s, the guitar’s basic structure has changed very little over the decades. The “Les Paul” continues to enjoy one of the best reputations of any electric guitar on the market. In fact, many would agree that the Gibson Les Paul is to the American musical landscape what the Louisville Slugger is to American sports.
“He was a futurist, and unlike some futurists who write about it and predict things, he was a guy who actually did things,” said Henry Juskiewicz, Chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar, which mass produced Paul’s original invention.
Had his innovative efforts with the solid-body electric guitar along with his artistic achievements been his legacy, that would have been doubly impressive! However, he was not done contributing toward monumental changes in the recording industry that we often take for granted today.
In the late 1950s, Paul built the first eight-track multi-track recorder. Each track could be recorded and altered separately, without affecting the others. His efforts ushered in the modern recording era. As a result, artists could record different instruments at different times, sing harmony with themselves, and then carefully balance the tracks in the finished recording. Now, artists could “overdub” their voices or instruments many times without losing sound quality while adding richness in sound. Consider the effect and importance of these recording techniques when listening to a song like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
His efforts with eight-track recording paved the way for producers like George Martin, who is responsible for most of the Beatles work in the 1960s using Paul’s multi-track technology.
For his achievements as a technician, Les Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005, joining Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.
“Honestly, I never strove to be an Edison,” he said in a 1991 New York Times interview. “The only reason I invented these things was because I didn’t have them and neither did anyone else. I had no choice, really.”
He recorded a final album, “American Made, World Played” to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2005. It featured guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Sting and others. The album won him two Grammy Awards. He was already recognized from the Grammys for technical achievements and won another performance Grammy in 1976 for the album “Chester and Lester,” made with Chet Atkins, another guitar legend.
Until recently, Paul performed weekly at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York. When asked if Paul thought he’d still be playing at 100, he said, “As long as the people put up with me, and I’m having fun doing it, why not?”
A hero to many current professional guitarists, here are a few testimonials honoring the contributions of Les Paul:
“The man who started everything. He’s just a genius.” – Jimmy Page/Led Zeppelin
“Without the things you have done, I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do.” – Eddie Van Halen/Van Halen
“All of us owe an unimaginable debt to his work and his talent.” – Keith Richards/Rolling Stones
As a guitarist myself for many years, I first heard of Les Paul’s name because of the Gibson guitar model. Later I would read about him as being a major influence for several players who had an impact on my playing. What’s impressive to me is that Les Paul pre-dates Rock ‘N’ Roll, but had the energy that embodies the genre. He was adept at Jazz, Blues, Country, Rock and other forms of American popular music. I believe that there is a lot to be learned from our musical past, and his playing is a reminder. While his playing served as a stylistic history lesson, he was very progressive in both his musical and technical endeavors and I’m thankful for his innovations relating to the electric guitar and studio recording technologies. In both areas, Les Paul ushered in a modernized shift that remains a standard today. Finally, I was very fortunate to catch him live at the Iridium in New York a few years ago. Prior to going, I was excited to see him even though I figured he’d be a bit tired since he was in his 90’s. I was mistaken. He played with energy, variety, skill and a great sense of humor for almost two hours to a deservedly warm audience. In addition to paying my respects, I saw an incredible live music show. So, Les Paul also taught me how I want to live as I grow older!
Some facts on the Joel Tenenbaum case, for those interested:
FACT: Tenenbaum was caught illegally downloading and distributing thousands of songs to millions of anonymous strangers using various p2p networks (including Napster, LimeWire, Morpheus, iMesh, AudioGalaxy, Kazaa and the like) since 1999. We brought legal action on a representative sample of 30 of those songs. Tenenbaum admitted that he knew that downloading and uploading music on these networks was illegal, but did it nonetheless.
FACT: After receiving our notice of claims against him, Mr. Tenenbaum pledged he would erase all unauthorized songs from his p2p shared folder. He did not. When asked why he didn’t remove the illegal songs, he indicated that he simply couldn’t bring himself to erase his music collection. In fact, he continued to heavily download and upload songs via p2p networks. Evidence shows he persisted in the illegal activity as recently as May 2008 (three years after receiving notice of claims and two years after receiving a formal lawsuit).
FACT: Mr. Tenenbaum is a hard-core, habitual and unrepentant p2p abuser who has caused harm to the music community.
FACT: After years of proactively dragging out his case by refusing to settle and filing obstructionist motions, Mr. Tenenbaum finally admitted to the illegal activity on the fourth day of trial in Boston.
FACT: Tenenbaum admitted during his testimony that he lied about his illegal behavior in sworn depositions and other statements, a felony under federal law.
FACT: Mr. Tenenbaum doesn’t take this seriously. He belatedly SAYS he believes that artists and music creators should be paid for their work, but he doesn’t apparently believe he should have to pay them. He even claims he was “joking” during settlement discussions when he demanded that we pay him thousands of dollars. In fact, even after a jury of his own peers ruled in favor of the record companies and rendered a decisive verdict against him, Mr. Tenenbaum still can’t admit that what he did was wrong.
FACT: As much as he wants to make this into one, this is not a crusade against the RIAA or the laws that protect creators. This is not about us. It’s about Joel Tenenbaum and his egregious illegal behavior which robs artists and music creators of the right to be paid for their work, and robs record companies of the ability to invest in new artists and bring new music to the public.
FACT: Mr. Tenenbaum has put forth the defense that “his generation” has grown up learning that file-sharing isn’t wrong. This is a bogus argument. I’m a member of Tenenbaum’s generation. I was taught I shouldn’t take what doesn’t belong to me without permission. And even Mr. Tenenbaum’s own classmates at Goucher College in Maryland voted to ban illegal p2p networks on campus. Young people who know right from wrong are not the exception to the rule. According to a recent study by research firm NPD, for the first time ever, those households that have purchased music legally have now surpassed the number of households that acquire music illegally.
FACT: The best anti-piracy strategy is a thriving legal marketplace that gives music fans a wide variety of innovative options where they can get their favorite music in affordable, hassle-free ways. Because there are some people like Mr. Tenenbaum who believe music should be free, we’ve had to enforce our rights to protect all those hard-working individuals who create the music.
FACT: We do not want to be in court. We’d rather be investing in new artists and bringing great music to the public’s collective ears. But artists, musicians, music companies, and all the working-class folks who rely on the legitimate sale of music to make a living deserve to be paid for their work. Because paying for music does not just benefit artists – it benefits the backup singers, session musicians, sound engineers, technicians, producers – everyone involved in the making of that product.
FACT: We remain willing to settle this case, but Tenenbaum is so far insisting on filing more motions and appeals in order to continue to pursue his misguided mission to get music for free.
Nobody can argue that people don’t deserve to be paid for their hard work. But through all his illegal actions, Tenenbaum has argued exactly that. Despite all this, we remain open to settling, as we always are and have been.
We recently saw the passing of one of the giants of the journalism world, Walter Cronkite. He was a broadcaster and public presence a generation before I was old enough to regularly watch the news and follow current events. However, I was struck by, even to this day, the enduring esteem in which he was held by both the American public and his colleagues in the news media.
It also strikes me that the depth of fond memories and admiration bestowed upon Mr. Cronkite is tinged with a slight but certain desire for a time when the world seemed a little easier to interpret, organize and digest. Never have we had more ways to access information, especially in areas of particular interest, than we do today. But the current glut of voices can at times overwhelm and confound.
Walter Cronkite was a reporter's reporter. He cared deeply about the news and getting it right. He earned the abiding trust of those who tuned into "CBS Evening News" for many years and who grew to rely upon the sound of his assured and accessible voice. Lastly, he played it straight, and he had standards.
I recently experienced another example of how "news" is generated far too often today, which stands in unsettling contrast to the ethics and standards of Mr. Cronkite. An exhaustive minute-by-minute play-by-play is not necessary here but the gist is that a magazine reporter asked us a question about the use of DRM on music. We pointed out that the question was essentially an irrelevant one now, given that licensed download sites now offer music in unprotected .mp3 format. Specifically, I said: "There is virtually no DRM on music anymore, at least on download services, including iTunes."
This reporter, in a separate conversation with a blogger about this same story, interpreted and paraphrased my comments. The blogger then took the reporter's characterization of my comments and attributed them to me, directly quoting me as saying "DRM is dead, isn't it?" and posted a piece of his own. A half-day cycle of Google news hits later, and an inaccurate story is spawned on the web.
I harbor no ill will toward the reporter who was asking a legitimate question. Or toward the blogger, who, to his credit, subsequently corrected his story. To their credit, some bloggers did undertake due diligence and checked with us first, and reported (if at all) accurately what we actually said. But what is shocking is that many others simply regurgitated the initial "reporting" of our comments and never once checked with us, the original source.
I have read that the approach taken by some bloggers is that when errors occur in a posting, the online crowd will correct -- that is, commentators or other bloggers will "correct" the story, and therefore, the need to confirm and get it right the first time is not imperative. Blog posts are "clarified" or “updated” with an injected new graph, but there is no retraction or alteration of original content. Seems to me this is a dangerous way of doing business. Not everyone reads the comments or re-reads a "clarified" story, and the damage has been done.
I'm all for anyone who can shrewdly or colorfully interpret the world or report and reveal facts about what makes it go round, no matter what the medium/source/outlet. More power to you. No doubt, we are a more informed society because of the insistent reporting of many blogs who fill niche spaces sadly (and increasingly) left vacant by the traditional news media. Regardless -- always persistently working to get it right the first time? That should never go out of style. Mr. Cronkite may have passed, but some of the lessons he taught us should endure.
By Jonathan Lamy