Happy Birthday, Les Paul

Les Paul, arguably the most famous electric guitarist, guitar engineer, and musician extant, is celebrating his 93rd birthday. Les Paul is a living master, a consummate performer still, and for older fans, one half of the '50s hit-making team Les Paul and Mary Ford. But if you're younger than, say, 60, not a jazz audiophile nor a habitué of Iridium, the New York jazz club where he still holds court, just who is Les Paul?

In that case, Les Paul isn't a person at all; he's the guitar Les Paul invented. For an analogy, consider Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Ask most people who--or what (to load the question)--Frankenstein was, and most will say that square-headed creature cobbled together from dead people, not the tortured scientist who created him.

Similarly, for a lot of people boomer-age and younger, Les Paul is that pug-shaped sunburst Gibson guitar with the round top and the cutaway bottom. It's the anti-Stratocaster if you will--the understated instrument sold against Fender's lineup. It is that solid-wood item, worn low like a gunslinger's pistol, favored by the likes of Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, just about every southern-rock player band guitarist you could mention from Dickey Betts on, Slash, Keith Richards, etc., etc.



Well, the world is celebrating LP's birthday in various ways, including a party/performance at his regular Monday night gig at the above-mentioned Iridium (held on June 9). But a lot will be going on in Wisconsin, his home state. The Marshall & Illsley Bank in Milwaukee, which is title sponsor of the city's Classic Rock Stage summer rock festival, is lighting up its headquarters with Les Paul guitar-shaped images, and doing a national promo inviting musicians to upload video tributes. The company is asking Les Paul fans to either upload their video tributes online or attend one of four videotaping sessions in Milwaukee for a virtual birthday card.

Also in Milwaukee, an exhibit called "Les Paul's House of Sound" opens on June 21 at Discovery World. Parenthetically, this year also marks Harley-Davidson's 105th birthday, so you could conceivably hit two birds with one stone, since Harley-Davidson will be celebrating with its own concert series, including an appearance by acts like the Foo Fighters and Bruce Springsteen. But don't expect the Boss to commemorate Les Paul by playing one. He favors Fender's Telecaster.

Still, both Gibson and Harley have been known to cross-brand. How about a Les Paul version of, say, the Sportster, or an HD-brand Les Paul? Anyone listening? I doubt it. I went to the PR newswires and typed in Les Paul for chuckles. I got two returns, one of which was the above Marshall & Illsley news. I typed Gibson and got about 10,000 returns about "Guitar Hero." Hey, if I type in "Frankenstein" I wonder how many items I'll get about Mary Shelley?

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