By Adam Rosenberg
This has got to be one of the worst summers on record. Today brings the tragic news that revolutionary axeman Les Paul has died at the age of 94. Paul's life was a full and a joyful one. He continued plugging away at his art through many of his twilight years in a weekly Monday night gig at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. I'm terribly sad that I'll never get to catch one of those Les Paul Trio performances now, as I've always meant to. I did have one very special encounter with the legendary guitarist, though.
Back in 2003, I was working at B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill in Times Square (just around the corner from my office at MTV). In June of that year, King himself came to town for a series of private performances to celebrate the club's third anniversary. I worked the night of June 17, which turned out to be an epic-scale affair. It's also the night that I met Les Paul.
I remember standing at the monitor board near the front of the room, off to the side of the stage. Being a stage tech, camping out as close to the stage as possible was something of a requirement. Not that I had any problem sitting within spitting distance of a blues legend like King.
So I'm sitting there watching King banter back and forth with his trombonist (and former James Brown musical director) Fred Wesley when all of a sudden there's a tap on my shoulder. I spin around expecting yet another drunken fan trying to muscle backstage.
Instead I saw this short, older man, immaculately dressed and smiling pleasantly. He stuck out his hand and said in a clear, strong voice, "Hi! I'm Les Paul. Can I come back and see B.B.?" I'm usually a pretty talkative guy and am rarely starstruck, but seeing Paul standing there introducing himself to me was almost too much. After taking a moment to collect myself, I told him "Of course" and swiftly escorted him past the bouncers.
The night didn't end there, however. Les and B.B. did end up chatting backstage, and the bluesman brought the guitar legend on stage to join him for the encore. The special moment came when King let Les shred on Lucille, his prized Gibson guitar, an instrument that no one other than B.B. and his inner circle is permitted to touch.
The massive encore performance also featured appearances from Hubert Sumlin (who famously played in Howlin' Wolf's band) Eric Krasno (Soulive), DJ Logic and others. After hearing Krasno's solo, King turned to his buddy Les and told him "You had better start practicing." It was a truly memorable night.
What I'll always remember most is how Paul, who I was seeing for the first time that evening, seemed so on top of his game. I'd always been impressed from afar at his ability to keep doing that Monday night Iridium performance every week. Seeing him on that stage with a fellow music legend, I immediately understood.
Paul lived and breathed his music. It sustained him and it served as a constant source of joy, keeping him vital at an age when anyone would have forgiven him for laying back and enjoying a restful retirement. That just wasn't an option. Les Paul was a master musician and a brilliant inventor in the field of music, but what I'll remember most about him is that fiery passion. It was clearly evident on his face that night as he fiddled with King's treasured Lucille, and it's the sort of drive that any musician should aspire to achieve.