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One On 1: Guitarist Les Paul On 80 Years Of Making Music

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Like Michael Jordan and basketball or Barbra Streisand and singing, the name Les Paul is synonymous with one thing: the electric guitar. Every Monday night the 93-year-old electric guitar legend takes the stage at the jazz club Iridium in Midtown. In this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin, Paul talks about a journey of more than 80 years of making music.

Every Monday night, a 93-year-old man takes the stage at Iridium and he's playing a guitar with his name on it: Les Paul.

“It’s great therapy for me. I’m not trying to make it from the bed to the bathroom. I've extended my tour all the way to New York!” says Paul.

Les Paul, who helped create and popularize the solid body electric guitar. He is also credited with introducing a number of electronic innovations, including multitrack recording.

But since he came out of retirement in the mid 1980's, he says all he's wanted to do was play in a small club in New York.

"What I enjoyed the most was playing in a little joint for the fun of it, not to become known, not to capitalize on it, make a fortune or a big name or any of that. But just to have fun,” said Paul.

Paul actually retired from playing for 15 years. But after heart surgery in 1980, his doctor advised that he resume playing for his health.

It eventually led to Paul going into the old club Fat Tuesday’s and asking the owner for a weekly gig.

“’Could we set up working every Monday night?’ He says, ‘We're not open Mondays.’ But I says, ‘We'll work for nothing.’ He says, ‘We're open Mondays,’” recalls Paul of his conversation with the club owner.

The gig eventually moved from Fat Tuesday’s to Iridium. Twenty-four years later, he's still playing. He still has the spirit, even as arthritis has taken over his body.

"It's in the feet, it's in the knees, it's in the back. It's in the shoulders, in the elbows, and the wrist and the hands. It's all over,” he says.

His fingers once flew over the guitar, but his hands have slowed, understandably, because of operations, arthritis, and age.

“It’s frustrating because it's changing all the time,” says Paul. “See I must have changed playing the guitar five times. Five times, and each time you have less to work with."

Hard to believe, but one of the greatest guitar players of all time says he had when he returned to playing in the mid-80s.

But a woman he met at one of the shows said something that eased his path back into performing.

"’Don't be foolish and try to play like you were when you were 20 years old, and so you do the best you can and the people will accept you the way you are now,’” recalls Paul. “It took a long time for me to say, ‘doggone it I missed that note, I missed that note. Well, now, today, I missed that note.’”

From the time he was a youngster in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Les Paul was always fascinated by, and sensitive to sound.

“If I got in a car with my dad, and I'd say, ‘Dad, how come there's a quiver in your voice when you talk to me, when you're driving? But only at 30 and 60 miles an hour, why would that be?’" says Paul.

He loved electronics, built a recording machine in what he called his laboratory in his house. Once he started playing guitar, he had an endless quest to make the guitar louder. His methods were creative.

“Filling the hole up full of socks and shorts and rags and tablecloths and stuff. That didn't work. Plaster of Paris. That didn't work,” says Paul

His folks divorced when he was young. Paul says his mother always supported his musical ambitions. He claims his father's drinking, smoking and womanizing provided an example of what not to be.

“I didn't go for the drinking, I didn't go for the smoking, I've never touched a drug in my life and I have that will to succeed to the day that I'm no longer supposed to be here,” says Paul.

He first played for tip money as a kid but soon left home for success in Chicago, New York and then Hollywood. He urged the Gibson Company for ten years to use his idea that would become the Les Paul guitar.

But in the late 40s, he almost died in a terrible car accident. Paul survived and had the doctor save his career by setting his right arm in a position so that he could continue to play the guitar.

Once he was well, he visited the doctor in Memphis.

"We were sitting on his front porch and I thanked him for what he had done and he said, ‘We damned near lost you, kid,’” says Paul. “But he says, ‘Here you are, you're doing fine, you're doing fine.’"

Paul’s star rose when he met Iris Colleen Summers, whom he renamed Mary Ford. They married and became a duo, with number one hits, a TV show and concerts around the world. But Paul says Ford didn't like show business and wanted to be at home raising a family. She asked him to quit the road.

He wouldn't.

"I’m on my way up and I like doing that. I like to drive 500 miles. I like to do just same as many of the other guitar players. This is their life. They wouldn't know what it is to be home,” Paul told his wife at the time.

They divorced in 1964, but Paul says they still spoke frequently on the phone.

He retired from performing at a time when rock music was taking his type of music off the airwaves.

Ironically, many rock guitarists played the Les Paul guitar and his admirers, like Keith Richards, occasionally join him.

Consider what Les Paul has seen. He started out using phone receivers and yes, a railroad track, in an effort to amplify his guitar. Now he's here for downloads and communication around the globe.

"It was just a privilege to be there at the beginning and have so little, and how hard we pulled together and it's just unexplainable the world we're in now and the world we were in then,” says Paul.

Since 1984, New York’s world has been made richer by what is now a Monday night institution.

Les Paul, at 93, still playing the instrument he fell in love with so long ago, still making fans happy.

"If nothing else, the person comes to me and says, ‘I just hope I can do what I'm doing when I'm your age. I just hope that I can do that.’ And I say, ‘You can. You can do that. That's the way you should think,’” says Paul.

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