Even though his accomplishments and contributions precede him, Les Paul appeared to be genuinely moved by the two standing ovations he received by merely walking onstage at two events in Nashville this past weekend.
Appearing Friday (July 18) during the annual All Star Guitar Night at the Ryman Auditorium, the 88-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and his trio performed a generous set that began with his 1948 hit, “Brazil.” He followed it up Saturday (July 19) at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum with a lengthy question-and-answer session hosted by Hall of Fame associate editor Michael Gray.
During the late ’30s and early ’40s, Paul gained national recognition for his work in the Les Paul Trio, which featured Chet Atkins’ half-brother, Jim Atkins, on guitar and vocals. In the ’50s, Paul and wife Mary Ford scored numerous pop hits, among them “Vaya con Dios” and “How High the Moon.” However, Paul’s career extended far beyond his work as a recording artist. In 1941, he first demonstrated his design for the solid body electric guitar. After being introduced by Gibson Guitars in 1952, the Les Paul model became one of the most popular instruments in the history of modern music. Paul donated the original prototype — referred to as “The Log” — to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 1965.
During the early ’50s, Paul perfected the first multi-track tape recorder, an innovation that also changed the course of music by providing more control and flexibility in the recording process. Paul utilized overdubs to dramatic effect on recordings such as “How High the Moon,” and the sound-on-sound concept became the standard method of making studio recordings.
Prior to Paul’s appearance at the Guitar Night concert, a short film was screened containing the first national TV broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry during the early ’50s. On the show, Paul and Ford were introduced by Opry star Carl Smith. Paul later noted that his first Opry appearance took place in 1928 with the help of another Opry star, Deford Bailey.
The Guitar Night concert also featured performances by several noted players, including Nokie Edwards (of the Ventures), Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten, Bryan Sutton, Steve Morse and former Howlin’ Wolf sideman Hubert Sumlin, who performed with former New York Dolls member David Johansen. Paul’s musical performance consisted primarily of well-known musical standards, including “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” He closed the show with “Tennessee Waltz,” having previously dedicated “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to two late Nashville studio legends — Chet Atkins and Grady Martin.
At the Hall of Fame, Paul discussed his career, including his work with Atkins in the mid-’70s on the Chester & Lester album.
“Chet called one day and said, ‘Hey, Les, you haven’t played in a million years. Now would be a good time for us to make an album.’ I said, ‘Why do you wait ’til I’m damn near dead?’ Chet says, ‘You bring your harmonica and guitar down here, and I’ll play the violin and we’ll sing.’ I said, ‘Are you sure of this?’”
In Nashville, both musicians had second thoughts after rehearsing with Atkins on violin and Paul on banjo. Paul recalled, “I look at Chet and say, ‘I think we better think this thing over.’ He says, ‘Well, what do you think?’ I say, ‘Well, what are we known for? We’re known for the guitar, so why the hell not do that?’ … So we sat down and started to play and felt a lot better for it.”
Chester & Lester was named best country instrumental performance at the 1977 Grammy Awards.