Les telling a story

As anyone knows who has heard Les Paul perform, he is one incredible entertainer. And at almost 84 years old (he'll be 84 June 9th), it's even more amazing. First, he puts on a lively show and then he graciously signs every single autograph request, be it on a CD, a vintage album, a photo, a t-shirt, you name it. I mean, he doesn't stop. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Of course, for years we've wanted to go see Les Paul at the Iridium, as he is one of guitar's icons. But, Bob and I had another mission in mind when we went to hear him February 15th at his regular Monday night gig. We wanted to garner his signature on the three archtop guitar backs that we have been collecting famous jazz guitarists' signatures on for the past three years. The signed backs are the brainchild of one of our customers and friends, Bill Doyle, from Massachusetts. He wanted a unique guitar with these signatures, so, since we had to gather signatures anyway, we decided to gather them on two other backs as well. The list to date includes over 40 names, including everyone from Johnny Smith and Herb Ellis to George Benson and Andy Summers. So, Les' signature was certainly a must-have (and one we, and our good friend Bill Doyle, really wanted)!

Les Paul, Bob Benedetto and guitar repairman/music writer & producer T.J. McGann (Bob holds one of the three signature guitar backs)

Our host that evening was a longtime friend and fan of Les Paul's, T.J. McGann, who is a guitar repairman and music writer/producer (he is currently producing a plectrum CD with Bucky Pizzarelli). He let Les know we were coming and why, and knowing his way around Manhattan, T.J. drove us into the city. For anyone who has never been to the Iridium, the architecture is quite unique, reminiscent of "Alice in Wonderland". The beautiful yet surreal design of the club lends itself fittingly to jazz.

Posing for the crowd: the Les Paul Trio (Lou Pallo, Paul Newinski and Les)

Thanks to T.J., our seats were right up front. At 11:15 pm (our bedtime!), Les took the stage. His trio consists of himself, veteran guitarist Lou Pallo and bassist Paul Newinski. In addition to being great musicians, they also have great temperments, necessary in order to put up with the good-natured ribbing that Les gives them — and which the crowd clearly relishes! But Les is a gracious host as well, inviting guest guitarists to sit in with the group. He is loyal to his fans. Per T.J. McGann, "Every Monday night Les puts on his show, even on nights when he isn't feeling that well. Sometimes his arthritis is acting up. But he loves to perform and gets a big thrill having his friends and other musicians sit in." That evening in fact, two local guitarists sat in: Nat Gardner and Jon Paris. Les ribbed them, too — noone escapes! — all to the delight of the audience. You can feel how in awe the guest musicians are to be on stage with the legendary Les. Tommy Doyle, Les's longtime sound and recording engineer (and pickup guru as well) called out to Les that Bob [Benedetto] was in the audience. While still on stage, Les briefly chatted with Bob about guitars, including Bucky Pizzarelli and 7-strings (one can't discuss 7-strings without discussing Bucky!). What a memory Les has! And by the way, Tommy Doyle, while quietly working the soundboard in the back of the room, should be credited for his technical expertise as the sound was excellent. Lucky for posterity, he records every show.

The group started out the evening with "Out of Nowhere", "September in the Rain" and "Ain't Misbehavin'". They sounded great. Then, right in the middle of the set, the trio stopped (T.J. warned us about this!) and comically posed for group shots. The crowd again went nuts and Les provided some very entertaining poses. Next they played "It Had to be You", "Embraceable You" (with Lou Pallo singing, who has a very nice voice) and "Caravan". Then they stopped and Les started telling his delightful tales. I know this sounds trite, but "you had to be there." He said he started out playing the harmonica and then talked about his old Sears guitar that he had as a young boy (age 8 or 9) and about going to hear Gene Autry — that was a great story. He idolized Gene as well as Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby and eventually played with them. When he was older, he went to hear Eddie Lang and Nick Lucas perform. Les said he still uses Nick's pick.

Then they were back to playing. The audience requested "Sophisticated Lady", which Lou performed. Lou then sang a rousing "Kansas City" with Jon Paris singing as well, plus accompanying on harmonica. After another tune or two, the trio did its standard finale songs, "Over the Rainbow" and "Just One More Chance". Needless to say, the crowd wanted more. But Les had autographs to sign and a line of adoring fans beckoning!

A close-up of Les signing the three Benedetto archtop guitar backs

After the show, lucky for us (and courtesy of one T.J. McGann!) we were immediately whisked back to the Iridium's greenroom (which is bright blue incidentally) and Les was there waiting to sign the guitar backs. (This was a lucky break for us as, afterwards, Les signed autographs till almost 3:30 in the morning! I know because we were there witnessing it and in fact, requested the last autograph of the night — for our friend Bill Doyle). Les happily looked over all the signatures on the guitar backs and it was very exciting to see him add his own signature with the others. I told him he has beautiful penmanship. Lou Pallo also signed the backs. Les and Bob chatted and laughed and several of us took photographs, some of which are shown here.

After the gig: (left to right) Lou Pallo, Jon Paris, Bob & Cindy Benedetto, T.J. McGann and Les's longtime soundman Tommy Doyle.

I am sure for everyone who attends Les's Monday night show that some of this will be familiar, some will be new. Fortunately, Les' son, Les Paul, Jr., ( "Rusty") videotapes every single show so someday there will be a treasure chest of shows for all to view. But, that aside, seeing Les in person is something any respectable guitar fan should not miss. Go see him any Monday night at the Iridium, 44 West 63rd Street, Manhattan. And if you're not in a rush, bring something for him to sign!

I should add that, on the way home, we took a brief detour to a Manhattan blues club and then went to guitarist Vinnie Bell's home in New Jersey (at 4 am, and he was wide awake — musicians!) to have him sign the guitar backs as well. We got home at 6:30 am which is when we usually arise. And, yes, we went straight to bed!

Here are a few more photos from the event

Les with a smiling Cindy & Bob Benedetto!
photo: T.J. McGann

In the Iridium greenroom: Cindy and Bob Benedetto flank Les Paul's bassist, Paul Newinski
Photo: T.J. McGann

T.J. McGann, guitarist Vinnie Bell and luthier Bob Benedetto. Each holds one of the three Benedetto guitar backs with signatures of well-known jazz guitarists.

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