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Les Paul Leaves Us

This is a post that I hate to have to write. Les Paul, musician, inventor, industry-changer and all -around great guy passed away today in White Plains, NY. Les was 94. Up until just a couple of months ago, he was still playing his guitar, live, every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club, in New York City.

Although he always considered himself a Jazz guitarist and never put out a Rock record, Les was, literally, one of the founders of Rock ‘n Roll. The inventor of the solid-body electric guitar; the creator of over-dubbing and multi-track mixing, Les Paul is at the heart of the modern recording industry. An inveterate tinkerer, he built his own equipment and then taught the mainstream manufacturers, like Gibson Guitar Corporation how to duplicate it.

I became a fan when I was just a kid, watching the Les Paul & Mary Ford Show on TV. It was purportedly filmed at their house (Les & Mary were married for fifteen years) and the performance of a couple of songs would be woven into some small episode of daily life like Mary planting new flowers. I remember one show where Les explained some of his unique recording techniques and the home-made equipment behind it.

In the late 1930s Les formed The Les Paul Trio with bassist-percussionist Ernie Newton and Jim Atkiins (Chet Atkins‘ half-brother). The trio played on Bing Crosby‘s radio show and Les backed Bing on several recordings. When Crosby made an investment in Ampex Corporation, he secured for Les one of the first commercially produced reel-to-reel tape recorders, the Ampex Model 200. Les immediately began to tinker and he added a second playback head, mounted in front of the standard record/erase/playback. This allowed him to record a live track on top of an existing recording, the first instance of “overdubbing.”

Here is a link to an archive of several of The Les Paul Show which ran on NBC:

http://www.archive.org/details/TheLesPaulShow

In 1980 a documentary of Les’ life and career was released called The Wizard of Wakeshau. Just a couple of years ago, PBS produced an updated version featuring current interviews with Les and some of his appearances at the Iridium Jazz Club. Keep your eye out over the next few days for your local PBS station or other cable channel to be running one of these shows. It is time well spent learning about one of the giants of the music business and one of the nicest guys ever.

Vaya con Dios, Les!

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Inside a recording session

Singer Denise Brigham recently released her major album, Hotel Lafayette. A collection of standards from the Great American Songbook, the album is excellent. Brigham’s deeply smokey voice gives a new twist to classic standards like At Last, Fly Me to the Moon and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. I particularly enjoyed the second track, The Cincinnati Kid, the title song from the Steve McQueen movie about a young, hotshot, poker player in New Orleans, out to challenge “the Man” played by Edward G. Robinson. The theme song in the movie was performed by [ta-dum] Ray Charles. Normally I am not in favor of newer singers taking on an iconic performance. But Denise does a great job of making the song her own, and it is a treat to hear this gritty tune updated.

The album is available from cdbaby.com which we always recommend as a great source of music, especially new talent.

Recorded  at Tone Zone Studio of the Chicago Recording Company, Hotel Lafayette features terrific production values, and you can get an insider’s look at how the producer, singer, musicians and sound engineers collaborated to create this very enjoyable album. Carey Deadman, a highly acclaimed record producer, arranger and musician produced all the tracks. the video of the recording session, broken into three parts, shows instrumental tracks being laid down, Deadman’s coaching of Brigham on the mood and feel of a song and other aspects of a modern, mutli-tracked recording session. There are informative text overlays to explain what is happening and how pieces are eventually integrated into the final cut. Listen for the electronic metronome.

Take a look at how recorded music really happens:

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“Soundies” – the Hollywood film shorts of Jazz & Big Band performers

I was asked recently about where someone could purchase “Soundies,” the short-subject films that Hollywood studios produced in the 1930’s, 1940’s and the early 50’s. Often, a Soundie would be produced and released as a promotional piece in advance of the release of a major film. Sometimes, a Soundie would be a stand-alone “short-subject” production. Or, it might be a musical number that was filmed to be part of a motion picture but edited out of the final print.

Short subjects, for those younger than 50, were the items like cartoons, documentaries, Movietone News, etc. that played in movie theaters before the first feature and between films at a double-feature. For you youngsters, it was common in the 1950’s to get TWO full-length movies and numerous short-subjects for your fifty-cent admission. I can’t explain it any better than you can see in this clip promoting a PBS documentary on Soundies that originally aired in February of 2007 and has re-run periodically since:

A DVD of this program is available on Amazon.com for $17.99:  Soundies: A Musical History

Big name orchestras led by the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey appeared regularly in musical shorts like this Count Basie clip:

The first source I want to recommend is The Jazz Store. These guys put out a nice catalog and have a big, searchable website. They offer some really stunning boxed collections like the Ultimate Jazz Archive, a 168-CD compendium of more than 3,000 tracks. They have artwork, T-shirts and caps, concert posters and some really hard-to-find recordings. On the subject at hand, they have  compilation DVD’s recapping highlights from some great careers. My favorite is “The Incomparable Lena Horne.” In this career retrospective, we are treated to literally all of Lena’s movie scenes, some of which were never shown in the southern states. Regrettably, Lena’s scenes, even the musical performances, were always structured and filmed so that they could be excised from the final cut and a different version was distributed in about fifteen states. If all you have ever seen of the younger Lena is the famous clip of her singing Stormy Weather, you might want to check this out. It is also available for rent from NetFlix.

Another good source is Movies Unlimited. Scroll down and look on the left for “browse top genres” and select “Musicals.” It is worth it to get one of their giant catalogs. You will not believe all the stuff the offer, and they have some great specials and sales.

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