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Les Paul Turns Ninety

The electric-guitar pioneer celebrates his birthday with an all-star album and Carnegie Hall concert

June 8, 2005 12:00 AM ET

Guitarist Les Paul smiles proudly as he sits in a Manhattan studio and listens to his first new studio recordings since 1978. Set for a late-summer release on Capitol, the as-yet-untitled album is Paul's birthday present to himself: He turns ninety on June 9th. On the record, Paul covers classic rock and R&B songs by Paul McCartney, Johnny Winter, War and Robert Palmer, among others, with a hot-licks army of disciples including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Peter Frampton, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora. Joss Stone, Sting and Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls are among the celebrity singers on hand as well.

Paul laughs in a deep, grainy voice when asked if any of his co-stars held their chops in check in deference to his seniority. "I don't think any of them did that," he says. "It's like at Iridium" -- the New York jazz club where he plays every Monday night, often with surprise guests. "When you get on that stage, you better do your best. If you don't, I'll climb on your back and have you for lunch.

"When Jeff Beck plays something," Paul goes on, "I would feel bad if he held back. He should play everything he can think of." Beck did just that on the album's version of Sam Cooke's "(Ain't That) Good News," which uses Cooke's original 1963 vocal. "Jeff called me and said, 'I got a little fancy. Sorry, Les.'" Paul beams. "It's great when I hear that."

The record is only part of an extensive celebration of Paul's life and continuing vitality. On May 14th, the former Lester Polfus of Waukesha, Wisconsin -- who created one of the first solid-body electric guitars in 1941; pioneered multitrack recording in the late Forties and early Fifties; and helped design one of rock & roll's signature guitars, the Gibson Les Paul -- was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. On June 7th, Capitol, Paul's label a half-century ago, issued a CD of his biggest hits from that era with his late wife, singer Mary Ford. And on June 19th, Paul will perform at New York's Carnegie Hall with a horde of pickers including Frampton, Sambora, Derek Trucks, Steve Miller, Joe Walsh and Joe Perry.

"It was amazing to watch people come forward because they loved Les so much," says Robert Cutarella, who co-produced the new album with Fran Cathcart. Frampton, who sings and plays with Paul on the 1976 Atlanta Rhythm Section hit "So Into You," seconds that emotion: "We're all there for him because he gave so much to us." And Frampton feels the album will "introduce Les to people who know the name but not what it means. Young guitarists will go, 'I thought the Les Paul was just a guitar. I didn't know he could play.'"

Paul is a rare living link to a bygone era in popular music: He can talk about trading laughs one morning on a Harlem street with Wes Montgomery and George Benson, then start a story with "Nat ['King'] Cole comes into my backyard. . . ." Paul retired from recording after two mid-Seventies LPs with Chet Atkins but continued to work in his New Jersey home studio and, in 1984, started his famous run of Monday-night shows in New York.

Despite hearing problems and encroaching arthritis, Paul decided last December that he was ready to record again and that he wanted to do "something 'today,'" he says. "I wanted to show these artists that I enjoyed their music. I was never one of those who said, 'Rock & roll is garbage.' But I never thought, until this project, that I could do it."

Logistics, including Paul's health and age, meant that he did not play face to face with his collaborators. Cutarella and Cathcart produced the tracks, matching songs and guests. Paul then recorded his parts at home. "I'd go to bed listening to a track," he says, "and get up thinking about the way they played it, where I fit in. Once I had that, it was no different than playing 'Blue Skies.'"

Arthritis is one battle Paul knows he can't win. "It gets worse and worse," he says, holding up his left hand and noting the things he can no longer do with it. "I can't make a chord. And I can't play a chromatic run." Then he smiles broadly. "But I'll find a way to slide one or hammer one. If Eddie Van Halen can do it, I can do it."

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