Only in LA: Les Paul, W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx and the Invention of Multi-Track Recording
A few years ago, longtime LA Weekly writer John Payne interviewed Les Paul, who died yesterday, as part of a comprehensive overview of his career. We'll be publishing Payne's remembrance on the guitar and recording innovator in next week's paper. Below is an excerpt of that piece.
He was without exaggeration the single most important figure in the history of modern music technology. The inventor of multi-track recording, the mobile recording studio, basic gear for reverb/echo and other effects, the bass guitar, even - not to mention the primary architect of the solid-body guitar . . .
Well, to find one's self chatting on the phone with Les Paul was a little bit like talking to God. He was there at the beginning, and he changed everything. And at 91 years old, when our conversation took place, he showed no sign of slowing down.
One of Les Paul's greatest periods of innovation came during his residency in Los Angeles circa the 1950s. In his garage studio on Curson Street, he threw himself into a variety of projects including multi-track recording machines and effects units. He was looking for his own sound - the necessity for which was made clear to him by his own mother.
"In 1946 I was in Chicago with the Andrews Sisters, and my mother said to me, `Driving down, I heard you on the radio, and boy, you were good.' And I said, `Mom, it couldn't be me, because I've been playing here on the stage with the Andrews Sisters.' And she said, `Well, that brings up something that I wanted to talk to you about. A lot of people are beginning to sound the same as you, and I think it's strange when your mother can't tell you from the other guitar players.'"
Paul did a few more shows with the Andrews Sisters, then departed back to L.A. to private himself away in his garage on Curson. "I was gonna lock myself in that studio and I wasn't gonna come out till I had a sound that was my own and that was different, and my mother could tell me from anybody else."
Paul worked in secrecy, not even telling musical partner Mary Ford what he was working on. He turned down work with Bing Crosby, with George Burns and Gracie Allen's TV program and everyone else, so excited was he about his new sound. Immersed in his work one day, however, he heard someone in his yard. It was W.C. Fields, sitting on a swing and listening to Paul's strange new effects. "You know what?" Fields says, "the music you're making sounds like an octopus. Like a guy with a million hands. I've never heard anything like it."
Among the myriad innovations Paul was developing was the first multitrack recording unit, an acetate machine that he fashioned from a Cadillac flywheel and fanbelt. He'd been fooling around with them since his days back in Waukesha, Wisconsin and knew by this time how he would build his state-of-the-art recording lathe.
After finishing up his night's work on the lathe at a friend's hobby shop in Hollywood one morning, Les heard someone throwing rocks in the window. He looked out and saw Groucho Marx. Groucho says, "I'm trying to wake the guy up upstairs," because he has a railroad store, where they have miniature railroads and trains. Paul started throwing rocks too, and Groucho said, "What in the world are you doing here?" "Well, I'm working on a recording, you wouldn't know what it is." Groucho says, "Let's see what you got."
Les showed Groucho the lathe. Groucho says, "My family are engineers over in Glendale. They might be interested in something like this." Groucho's family company ultimately made a lathe for Paul, which he used along with the one he'd built himself to create a multitrack recording unit that would record and bounce tracks back and forth between the two lathes.
It was a concept that built on itself by Paul's own brand of logical inevitability. In subsequent years, the development of magnetic tape recording machines -- the potential of which he was cued in on when a friend gave him one that'd been confiscated from the Nazis - led him to discover how by adding a fourth
recording/playback head to the unit he'd invented the first mobile recording unit. Along with transforming their sound with the extra head's reverb/echo capabilities, the invention enabled Paul and Mary to take their show on the road and write/rehearse new material at the same time.
A playback head amplifies the tape on a reel-to-reel recorder
"So I got an orchestra and a glee club," he said, laughing. "All I need is a guitar, some earphones, a microphone and a little mixer; there's room for Mary's voice and room for my guitar, put 'em together on this tape machine. And lo and behold, it worked."
The Les Paul story is just too big. But it's all true. Using whatever he had at his disposal - old car parts, cast-off radios, telephones, railroad tracks and logs - this one man band from Waukesha, Wisconsin single-handedly revolutionized the recording industry. Not the least of his creations would include his development with Ampex and engineer Ray Norman of the eight-track recording machine, initially inspired by how film companies striped the video and audio track on a single strip of magnetic tape.
Paul made crucial improvements to the Ampex prototype, involving an idea he'd been calling Sel-Sync. "The basic idea is to take the record head and use it as a playback head, and have enough isolation between the tracks, which we would call `land.' There should be isolation of sound so that one track is here, and on the track next to it there is a space, like driving on a highway. So track one or two, if you just take stereo, you have a left and a right; if you take one on the left, you got all the left, the one on the right, you got the right.
"At first, an Ampex machine would manually switch from playback to record, and in my way it was done automatically. Press `Record,' the head switched over, a relay would kick it over. So we were always right on target."
And then there is the mysterious Les Paulverizer, a multi-effects/playback unit that he custom-crafted to fit right on to his guitar, enabling Mary and him to improvise multitracked vocal and guitar and space it all out wacky as the mood might deem; he could also control the volume of the PA with it. (The first people to hear the Paulverizer were Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower, at a command performance at the White House. They dug it, apparently...)
The Paulverizer was a key element in the success of Mary and Les' radio shows and live performances, where, by the way, Les eliminated the acoustic bass to play the bass sound on the guitar, which was arguably the beginning of the electric bass guitar.
Through it all, Les Paul persistently plugged away at his dreams, following his muse, having the time of his life. At this point, everyone has been influenced in one way or another by Les Paul, whether by his numerous technological innovations or by his equally inspiring wellspring of creativity.
"I had my dreams, but they didn't go way out," he said. "I just thought the electric guitar should be here, it will be here and it'll be successful. But I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would be this successful. And the same thing with my invention of all the sound effects: the reverb, and the delay and all those things. I knew they were great toys to play with; I knew I was gonna have a lot of fun with them, but I never knew it would continue to advance more and more. It was a very pleasant surprise."
One more thing: Les Paul is the inventor of the Chipmunks. But that's a whole 'nother story...
Read Erin Broadley's interview with Slash about his friendship with Les Paul, who he calls "a total fucking maverick."
Drew Tewksbury penned an ode to Les Paul's influence, complete with choice YouTube clips. Read it here.