New York, NY – Nearly a year after legendary guitarist and innovator Les Paul’s passing, the Edison of the electric six-string’s light continues to shine on with Les Paul Mondays, an ongoing concert series dedicated to memorializing Paul’s lasting legacy at the Iridium, where he maintained one of New York’s longest-running gigs right up to his final days. Starting in 1995, when Paul began his tenure at the subterranean Midtown West restaurant and club, virtually every major guitar god at one point or another humbly shared the stage with the man behind the eponymous solid-body Gibson guitar—Slash, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, as well as innumerable others. But now that Paul is gone, they’re returning to honor his memory.
“We want to create the hippest guitar hang on the planet in honor of the electric guitar’s most important pioneer, Les Paul,” says Ron Sturm, general manager of the Iridium. “Every Monday we will feature some of the world’s greatest guitarists from guitar gods like Slash, Frampton, and Jeff Beck to lesser known guitarists who deserve to be heard from all genres, as Les covered them all.” In addition to presenting guitarists every Monday night, Iridium will also donate a portion of each week’s door to the Les Paul Foundation.
“You can never see Jeff Beck in such a small room,” says Sturm. “They do this for love. They do it for the love of Les.”
Jeff Beck’s shows will mark the official dedication of the performance space to the late elder statesman of the electric guitar, who spent more than 12 years performing at the Iridium every Monday night. June 9 would have marked Paul’s 95th birthday.
“Les made time for everybody, and he was a big star, but only in his death now do I realize how truly huge Les is and what a big shadow he has cast over modern recorded music,” says Sturm.
The series features a different guest guitarist every week backed by the Les Paul Trio, comprised of perennial Paul collaborators guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Nicki Parrott, and pianist John Colianni. The band covers favorites from The Les Paul songbook such as “It’s Been a Long Long Time,” “How High the Moon,” and “Brazil.” Then the special guest is brought up and encouraged to select a diverse set list with no restrictions. With each week’s performance, the breadth of scope of Paul’s influence becomes more apparent, a testament to the resounding and universally felt impact he exerted on contemporary music.
The group is eclectic to say the least, stretching across multiple genres; past guests have included former Ozzy Osbourne lead guitarist Zakk Wylde to balladeer Jose Feliciano. Future guests include fingerpicking dynamos Jimmy Bruno, Frank Vignola, and legend in his own right, Bucky Pizzarelli; jazz master Larry Carlton; on June 7, instrumental rock guitarist Eric Johnson; on June 8 and 9, Jeff Beck; on June 10, Jorma Kourkenon; and on June 14, Spin Doctors lead guitarist Chris Barron, who is rumored to be bringing the entire group. Future guest appearances include Peter Frampton, Billy Gibbons, Slash and Ace Frehley.
“Les Paul really was able to relate to everybody. That’s why people loved him,” says Sturm. “If you were Eddie Van Halen jamming on stage with Les, you were treated the same way as a pimple-faced kid who could barely play a chord.
Always eager to foster a community of openness and collaboration, Paul was a venerable and voluble host, welcoming everyone with a goodwill ambassador’s beatific charm, from the unknown to the world-famous to the infamous. The veritable pantheon of guitar greats that dropped by for impromptu jam sessions came for a guitarist’s rite of passage—to glean what hard-earned wisdom Paul had to offer, to engage a living legend in what was sure to be enlightening musical conversation, or to test their rapier wit against the master (an unwinnable battle that often yielded fruitful results).
“When Les Paul would play on a Monday night, it was electric,” says Sturm. “People were buzzing. It was an electrified atmosphere, and you never knew who was going to come up.”
Born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Paul began playing at an early age, and at the age of 10, his renowned predilection for tinkering led him to devise a handless harmonica holder out of a coat hanger. It wasn’t long before he began experimenting with different pickups and amplification techniques. Throughout the 30s and 40s, Paul lent his virtuosic twang to various country and popular acts, including Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and Nat King Cole.
Collaborating with singer Mary Ford, Paul solidified his reputation as a surefire hitmaker of the 40s and 50s, putting his inimitable stamp on such gold records as “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” and “Vaya Con Dios.” Later in life, Paul eschewed the limelight, preferring the intimacy of a snug jazz club to the impersonal studio environment or the expansive echo chamber of a recital hall.
As an inventor, Paul’s contributions cannot be overstated. In addition to pioneering work with distortion and other electronic effects as well as cornerstone developments in multitrack recording and miking techniques, Paul also created one of the world’s best-selling guitars, the Gibson Les Paul. He didn’t just inadvertently stumble upon this revolutionary solid-body electric guitar; he approached it with the verve of a tireless experimenter who sought after a sound that in his youth resonated only in his imagination, a piercing tone capable of playing lead lines over a band that an acoustic-electric setup simply couldn’t possibly produce. Due to this watershed technological innovation, Paul is often credited for laying the sonic foundation of modern rock, fusion, and electronica. Despite his success, though, Paul always stayed modest.
“The great thing about Les Paul is that he was an everyman,” says Sturm.
Regardless of their musical affiliation, guitarists across the spectrum can transcend their stylistic differences and find common ground at the Iridium through Paul, who after the outpouring of admiration and praise in his passing, seems to have emerged as patron saint of the electric guitar.
“Like Les Paul said, ‘Music is music. What’s good is good,’” Sturm says. “So, you know, people play here who can shred guitar like Zakk Wylde or they can play beautiful solo guitar like Martin Taylor or Stanley Jordan.”