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Jazz Guitarist Eddie Dirr playing a 1953 Gibson ES 295, one of Les Paul's favorites, on Father's Day at the Museum. Photo by Kathy Ann Weber.
In 1943 at the age of 14 I somehow got wind that my idol, Les Paul, would be appearing with the Andrews Sisters at New York City's Paramount Theater. I had been playing guitar since age 8, studying with my father who was Middletown, New York's first distributor/dealer of Gibson guitars. I had just begun playing gigs and was copying the gypsy jazz rhythm of Django Reinhardt and the hot licks of Les Paul and would be traveling alone from Middletown by train. Just to sit in the audience and see my idol on stage would be a thrill. But a supportive uncle with a "why-not" attitude threw caution to the wind, called backstage, and brazenly asked to speak with Les Paul. Les, being Les, came to the phone. And Les, being Les, told my uncle I was to come backstage at show's end. That's how I found myself at 14 in the great Les Paul's dressing room talking music, guitars, and technique. He was down-to-earth, kind, encouraging, and, amazingly, invited me to accompany him as he walked back to his hotel. It has been nearly 70 years, and I no longer remember the name of the hotel, nor do I remember precisely what was said. It doesn't matter. I walked the streets of New York City with Les Paul. It's rare to meet one's idol. It's rarer still when he lives up to your expectations. Les, being Les, surpassed every one of mine.
My Les Paul Story
“The Guitar Mafia” from left to right, Lou Pallo, Les Paul, Al Caiola, Tony Mottola, Paul Nowinski, Vinny Bell and Bucky Pizzarelli at Les Paul’s 83rd birthday at the iridium, NYC. Photo by Christopher Lentz For years Les had been bugging my father to come to one of his shows at the Iridium. They were old friends, and mutually admiring guitarists since the 1950s. Jazz guitar players are like a brotherhood; maybe that’s because they all share a magical gift. So when Les’s 83rd birthday was coming up my dad phoned me and said, “Why don’t you come pick me up Monday and we’ll drive into the city, have dinner at Patsy’s and go see Les.” At the time, one of my nieces and one of my nephews were living in Manhattan. Another niece and nephew came in from Connecticut and they all joined us at the club. Les was very solicitous of my dad and they sat together at the front table chatting about old times while an amazing guitar quartet of Al Caiola, Bucky Pizzarelli, Vinnie Bell and, of course, Lou Pallo, opened the show — cutting each other up with smiling faces and hot solos — until Vinnie blew the house down.
“The Guitar Mafia” from left to right, Lou Pallo, Les Paul, Al Caiola, Tony Mottola, Paul Nowinski, Vinny Bell and Bucky Pizzarelli at Les Paul’s 83rd birthday at the iridium, NYC. Photo by Christopher Lentz
For years Les had been bugging my father to come to one of his shows at the Iridium. They were old friends, and mutually admiring guitarists since the 1950s. Jazz guitar players are like a brotherhood; maybe that’s because they all share a magical gift. So when Les’s 83rd birthday was coming up my dad phoned me and said, “Why don’t you come pick me up Monday and we’ll drive into the city, have dinner at Patsy’s and go see Les.” At the time, one of my nieces and one of my nephews were living in Manhattan. Another niece and nephew came in from Connecticut and they all joined us at the club. Les was very solicitous of my dad and they sat together at the front table chatting about old times while an amazing guitar quartet of Al Caiola, Bucky Pizzarelli, Vinnie Bell and, of course, Lou Pallo, opened the show — cutting each other up with smiling faces and hot solos — until Vinnie blew the house down.
After a while Les got on the stand and single-noted his way through a couple of tunes. His chops were pretty shot with arthritis by then, but he still played with deep feeling and his trademark distinctive tone. He was always a great melody man, something my father really admired in a player.
Now Les was what my dad would call “a salty guy.” So he went into his schtick, kibitzing with the audience, and at one point he launched into a pretty randy joke about oral sex.
Once he got started my father waved his hand and said, “Hey Les, give me a break. I’ve got my grandchildren here!”
Not missing a beat, Les looked down at him with a grin and said, “Don’t worry Tony, They’ll explain it to you later.”
— Tony Mottola, Jr.
Originally published in Jersey Jazz magazine, October 2009.
As I was always a fan of any kind of good music, I listened to not only the popular music of my peers, but to the music of the classics and the music of my parents on WNEW-AM.
While listening to that station, I was enthralled by a sound. The sound of a guitar that had been layered upon itself a multitude of times. The intensity and the clarity of the sound was a revelation to my young ears. This was the art of Les Paul.
When I was 13, my parents moved everything, including us kids, to Mahwah, where we lived on the banks of the Ramapo River on Ramapo Valley Road. Imagine my excitement when I found out through speaking with neighbors (who were very few and far between), that the man who made this incredible sound lived within a bicycle ride of my house. And not only did he live there, that was the place that he made this incredible music. Having just taken up the guitar a couple of years earlier, I was fascinated by what he could get out of my instrument.
Well, with the brashness of youth, I took off on my bicycle and rode the slightly overgrown path along the Ramapo River Valley to the road that would lead to his door. Standing there and shaking, I knocked. From within I heard a muffled, “Yeah, OK, just a minute." When the door opened, there stood a man who was older than my father, who looked at me and said, 'What can I do for you?"
"Mr. Paul?" I said, my voice cracking slightly, "My name is Scott, and I live down the road. I like your music, and I was wondering if there is anything I can do for you to help out or something."
I never really expected anyone to answer the door. I think.
A small smile moved across his face, and he said, "Well, kid, if you can handle a broom, my studio can use a sweeping out."
Of course I accepted. Just the chance to see where the magic took place.
So for a few years, once in a while I would show up at his door and say, "Hi, Mr. Paul, it's me, Scott. You need your studio swept out or anything?"
In that time, I learned what tape recording was, how multitrack worked, what a mixer is and other things of which no one else I knew had knowledge.
At one point, Les was playing something on his guitar, and he said to me, "Hey, kid. You know how to play a 12-bar blues?"
I replied that I did, and he asked me to pick up a guitar that was sitting there and play it in A. Nervously, I did what I was asked. As I was young, I had the feeling that I couldn't disappoint this man. If I disappointed my father, I would have felt his wrath, and I didn't know if Les was the same.
After playing for a couple of minutes, he said, "OK, you take one."
Nervously, I played the best blues improv that I could. During it, Les said, "Hold it. What did you just do there?"
I showed him what I had played and he said, 'What a great idea. I never thought of that." Then he repeated what I played on his guitar and showed me what I could do to enhance it.
I was on a high for several weeks after.
Years have passed since then. I've played in too many bands to remember, roadied for several others (including one that had Les' son, Russ, in it), made a mark as one of the founders of a worldwide performers' association, been one of the stars of a syndicated television program, formed my own corporation (an audio consulting and recording firm) and worked in a dozen or so "day jobs."
Once at a club where Russ Paul performed, I heard a well-known guitarist at my table tell his story of Les saying to him, "What a great idea. I never thought of that." I smiled. I realized that was Les' way of encouraging a young guitarist.
You may hear stories of how opinionated and gruff Les Paul could be, or what a perfectionist he was or some other such thing. Don't disbelieve them - he was all of that.
But remember, Les Paul was also a kind, gentle and, in his own way, nurturing mentor for, at least, one overweight kid from Mahwah in the early 1960s.
A man with a name that sounded like Polfuss called for a piano tuning. He lived in a private community that could only be reached by crossing a narrow bridge over a river. His home appeared to be anchored on a mountainside with rock blasted away for parking. As I pulled up in the back, an elderly gentleman with blue eyes, wild wiry white hair, and one arm in a sling came out to greet me. This was already unusual, as people seldom go out of their way to greet the piano tuner. We're lucky if they answer the door. I followed him through a side entrance of an addition that may have been a garage at one time. He turned right and led me along a corridor to a thick door that looked like it belonged on a bank vault. The corridor had no furnishings except for a long counter that you might see in a department store, but there was nothing in or on it other than a phone. This was a far cry from the standard tuning job where the piano is in the living room.
I was somewhat apprehensive about stepping through that ominous door into a pitch black room. Right about here, my years of watching The Twilight Zone kicked in. Was I about to enter another time period? Was this man a mad scientist who needed one more person on the space ship? Did he really have a piano?
In light of the recent (and pending) floods, I can't help but think of Les.
Shortly after moving to the flood zone in Oakland, NJ in the early eighties, I addressed the Town Council regarding some suggestions for flood control. After the meeting, a neighbor (who was a long-time resident) and I decided to celebrate what we thought was a good session, by stopping in to Molly's Fish Market for a drink at the bar. As we took off our coats I commented that there was good, live guitar coming from the bar area, to which Ruth responded very matter-of-factly, "yea, that's Les Paul." Not knowing much about the area, I naturally thought she was kidding and we walked in. There HE was!
Long story short, I sat at a barstool right next to him, was mesmerized, never said a word to my neighbor, and "a drink" turned into quite a few! It's been almost 30 years now, but I will remember that evening and experience like it was yesterday. I suspect for the rest of my life.
I was probably in my early twenties when my friend and band director, Harley Streiff, told us of a small concert that Les Paul was playing at McDougal's Restaurant in Ramsey. I did not have a lot of money at the time, so I took a chance there would be space that evening at the door. When I arrived, there was not tickets left. I did what any gal would do in this predicament. I begged..."but my friends are all going to be there...Charlie, Paul, Harley...." at that moment a kind old gentleman said., "what name was that?" I said, "Harley. Harley Streiff". The old gentleman then told the guys to let me in and waved me off when I presented my money for the ticket. I told all my friends when I got in what had transpired in the lobby with the nice old guy who let me in. Imagine my surprise when the old guy was Les Paul himself!!! We all got a pretty good laugh from that!!!
Lisa (Dator) Hough