Milwaukee – Guitar legend Les Paul can use only his left thumb and pinkie to perform at his weekly nightclub gigs in New York. The 89-year-old takes no medication for his painful arthritis and permanent injuries from a car accident 56 years ago, because it exacerbates his ulcers.
But twice every Monday night, the renowned musician also known for his innovations on the solid-body electric guitar and multitrack recording gets on stage with his trio at the Iridium Jazz Club.
“It’s quite a challenge but I enjoy it,” the Waukesha, Wis., native said in a recent phone interview from his home in Mahwah, N.J. “I see an improvement everyday.
“I have always been one that loves a challenge so I got one now…. It’s something to look forward to, to conquer something that has never been done before.”
Born Lester William Polfuss, Paul recently made a trip back to his native state. The Wisconsin Foundation of School Music gave him a lifetime music education award Oct. 27 in Madison, where he stayed with Gov. Jim Doyle. He also stopped by his hometown, a Milwaukee suburb, for the first time in years.
“I was so surprised how Waukesha had grown and how nice the people are. That was the most impressive,” he said.
He visited the Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum, which is creating an exhibit on his life.
Museum officials hope to raise several million dollars to open the 5,000-square-foot exhibit in three years, executive director Sue Baker said. Paul is helping with the exhibit’s design and content.
While there last month, Paul left his hand prints in concrete for part of the exhibit and signed two pieces of the exhibit wall for possible auction later.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland opened a Paul exhibit in March. Paul, nicknamed Rhubarb Red for his hair, said the Waukesha exhibit will focus more on his upbringing in Wisconsin.
“I think it’s more personal,” he said. “It’s going to be the best exhibit of all.”
Paul, the son of an owner of a car-repair service, also plays harmonica, saxophone, piano, banjo and the accordion. Paul built his first crystal radio at age 9, around when he first picked up a guitar. He first heard the instrument while sitting under a WTMJ radio transmitter.
By his early teens, he had left home to travel with a country band.
Since then he’s created various jazz trios and played with Bobby Hackett, Artie Shaw and Bing Crosby
. He became a musical duo with Mary Ford, whom he married in 1949, and they had hits like “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “How High the Moon,” and “Vaya con Dios (May God be with You).”
During the 1940s he developed his own amplified guitars and experimented with overdubbing in his home-recording studio.
In 1952, the Gibson Guitar company revolutionized popular music when it introduced the Les Paul solid-body electric guitar.
Over the past three decades, he’s won various awards, including a Grammy with Chet Atkins for best country instrumental performance. In 1998, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in September he won a lifetime achievement award at the Emmys.
Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman and chief executive officer of Gibson Guitar Corp., said he regularly consults with Paul on guitar designs and other ideas, including the Les Paul piano. He describes him as intense with a “wonderful charisma, a genuine humanity. It’s hard not to love the guy.”
“He goes to music stores to make sure his guitars are right. He calls me if they are not,” he said. “I can honesty say he is absolutely a part of the Les Paul guitar. It doesn’t matter if I want him to be. He has tremendous personal pride…. He is no mere name on the instrument.”
Paul feels gratified so many people play Les Paul guitars. He attributes his success to a lot of luck and hard work.
“You have to believe in what you are doing and then probably the toughest thing is to convince somebody else that you got a good idea,” he said.
Paul can’t practice anymore because of the pain, but the extra time lets him pursue hobbies like reading and researching psychiatry and history.
He also listens to modern music, and especially likes guitarist Jeff Beck.
“It’s very interesting to listen to all the different kinds of music because you see what’s happening to them all,” he said. “What they are doing right now, the direction they are going in, the many, many different ways of saying what you have to say with your hands.”
The octogenarian doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.
He plans to play “until I drop,” he said. “What would I do if I didn’t?”