Anyone who owns a Gibson Les Paul guitar can probably recall with tremendous precision the joy and sense of fulfillment they experienced the day they first purchased it. For many it was, and is, a dream come true. The Les Paul is a guitar that spans generations, and has been used by many of the greatest musicians to ever pick up the instrument. It is a symbol of the music they grew up with, and to own and play one is to be a part, in some small way, of modern music’s most esteemed fellowship. The Les Paul guitar is all of that. Lester William Polsfuss, aka Les Paul, the man, was much more than that.
Though Paul’s endless fortitude and earnest belief that a zest for life breeds longevity made him larger than life to most, he was a sincere, life-loving, and genuine human being to those fortunate enough to know him and spend time with him. To those lucky few, Les Paul was more than just one of the most revered guitar players in the history of the instrument, and possibly all of music. It didn’t matter that his name graced the most iconic guitar of all time, or that countless other musicians—many of them legends in their own right—often sought him out for his advice and solidarity. To those blessed few, Les Paul was a mentor, a confidant, and most importantly, a friend who could always be counted on in both good times and bad.
Whether laughing at Paul’s sometimes raw but always witty humor, or crying together to mourn the loss of a loved one, those closest to Paul all agree that the legend consistently showed a genuine kindness and compassion to most everyone he came in contact with. And it was those same traits, along with the many countless memories, that will always live on in the hearts of the people whose lives Les Paul touched the most.
Les Paul’s character and humanness were on display weekly at New York City’s Iridium Jazz Club in the middle of Manhattan’s Times Square district. It was here that Paul, health permitting, would hold court for two shows every Monday night for approximately 150 devotees that had gathered to admire his genius. For most fans, many of them guitarists themselves, the trek was a pilgrimage, a “must-see” attraction that was usually the first item of business on any trip to the Big Apple. No offense to any of New York’s many landmarks, but the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building just didn’t hold a candle to the desire of a guitarist to show appreciation to the man most responsible for the music we hear today.
Aside from his own family, many of them scattered throughout New York state and back in his hometown of Waukesha, WI, Paul’s closest comrades were the devoted musical colleagues who accompanied him at the Iridium, otherwise known as the current installment of the Les Paul Trio. They are: Lou Pallo on guitar, Nicki Parrott on bass, and John Colianni on the piano.
Les and his Trio performing at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. Beginning in 1995, Paul performed two shows at the club almost every Monday night. Before that, Paul kept the same schedule at Fat Tuesday’s, also in New York, from 1983 until the club closed its doors in 1995. Photo by Chris Lentz.
Colianni, an accomplished jazz pianist with the surreptitiously clever nickname of “Chops,” was the latest musician to join Paul’s entourage, having done so in 2003 after Paul set out on a quest to revitalize his earlier music from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as his own playing. Colianni came to Paul’s attention through the recommendation of fellow guitarist and frequent collaborator, Bucky Pizzarelli.
“He really wanted to get back to the sound he had with his original trio when Mary Ford was in the band,” Colianni said shortly after Paul’s death on Aug. 13, 2009. “He was asking around for someone that could play that style of piano from that time period. He asked Bucky [Pizzarelli] and Bucky recommended me. So Les called me and said he wanted to try me out. I was honored and thrilled, because I really loved Les’ music going back to his work with the Nat King Cole trio. I had never met him before that, but he wanted me to come and sit in on a Monday night at the Iridium without an audition. Basically, it was a jam session, but it’s worked out pretty nice,” Colianni said.
While he didn’t realize it at the time, Colianni gave Paul the inspirational spark he’d been searching for. Although he never complained publicly, or let it deter him from pursuing his lifelong passion, Paul’s playing had become increasingly burdened by complications from the arthritis that had plagued his hands since the early 1970s.
Additionally, the piano had been absent from Paul’s music since the late 1950s, and Paul felt that adding a piano would help ease his musical load, so he could continue playing live with his band. Little did he realize that in Colianni he would find not only a perfect fit musically, but also a close friend.
“In my opinion, there was no one with more technical prowess than Les, and he really missed being able to execute all those great ideas that were coming into his brain,” Colianni said. “When I joined the band, his technique wasn’t really there. But the more we played the more he recovered it, and by 2004–05 he was definitely more spirited and into it. So I’m kind of happy about that. We really got along great. He had a really wonderful sense of humor, and it was great to banter about with him on the phone and backstage. He loved to call me and tell me what was on his mind. And if you weren’t careful, he’d have you on the phone for an hour.”
Here Les plays one of his many modified Gibson Les Paul guitars, which he loved to tweak himself. This one is a black Les Paul Custom, probably from the mid-1950s, with small block inlays, an angled fingerboard end, and customized pickups and controls. Photo by Chris Lentz.
Nicki Parrott’s road to Les Paul was bit more worldly, although her transition into Paul’s band was just as seamless as Colianni’s. The Australian-born redhead first landed in the states in 1994 after receiving a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, which allowed her to study with her mentor, Rufus Reid, one of the world’s premiere double bassists. In 2000, Parrott was rehearsing and playing around New York with noted jazz guitarists David Spinozza and John Tropea when they asked her to accompany them to the Iridium to watch Paul perform some of the songs they’d been rehearsing in their own ensemble. She said she’d known of Paul’s music for some time, but just like her colleagues, had never met him or known of his kind nature.
“We went down there and sat in with Les Paul and played a few tunes and it was amazing,” Parrott said two days after attending and performing at Paul’s funeral service at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan. “When we were done, Les said, ‘Well, you guys can sit down now, but leave the girl up here.’ I felt really nervous because I didn’t know what songs he was going to call out or anything. But he went about his routine and I just followed along. Occasionally Lou [Pallo] would have to call out a chord or something, but it went ok.
“And then later on that night, I remember he made a couple of cracks about women musicians and I came back with something about old guys, and him and I ended up talking a little bit onstage,” Parrott recalled of the beginning of the banter between the two that became a staple of the Iridium shows. “Then a few days later Les’ bass player at the time called and asked me if I wanted to fill in for him, and I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to.’ So Lou helped me with some of Les’ repertoire and I did my homework, and I figured out all the music and arrangements just the way Les played them. You play those songs at other gigs but you don’t play them exactly the way Les plays them. So we did some shows, and after a few more weeks Les decided that he wanted me permanently, which was awkward, but I was very grateful for the opportunity.”
Parrott attributed Paul’s penchant for having women around him to his early days with Mary Ford, whom he married in 1949. Together, the pair hosted the television show “Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home,” which was broadcast from their living room until 1958, and recorded more than three dozen hits, including “Mockingbird Hill,” “How High the Moon” and “The World Is Waiting forthe Sunrise” in 1951, and “Vaya Con Dios” in 1953, all of which were million-sellers.
“He just loves being around women, and having women onstage,” Parrott said of her incorporation into Paul’s band. “But it wasn’t just that. Musically, it worked as well, because if it didn’t work musically then there’s no way in hell it would have happened. He is very serious about the music. He encouraged me, and when things weren’t right in the band he’d also let you know, but not in an awful way. He guided you if it didn’t sound right.”
Parrott also credits Paul with helping her step out of her shell, and for helping her develop her singing voice and a flair for improv and crowd entertainment, which she now takes on the road with her for her own gigs. “I didn’t really sing before,” Parrott said, “and I found that there was some opportunity for that and I liked it. I used to be a bass player that was happy just sitting at the back of the band, and Les wanted me to be up front speaking on the mic, talking to the audience and talking back to Les. It was a show. He really did always think about the audience. He loved talking to the people up front and making eye contact with everyone, and in that sense he was just a great performer,” she said.
You could argue that guitarist Lou Pallo was Les Paul’s long lost brother. The two first met in 1961 at a bar in Greenwood Lake, NY, where Pallo was working in an act with another guitarist. In between sets one night he was told someone at the bar wanted to buy him a drink. When he got there, he was stunned to see it was Les Paul, one of his childhood idols. The two shared the first of many drinks together, and would go on to develop a special friendship and bond that lasted until Paul’s last day on earth. It was a bond so deep that Pallo was the only oneoutside of Paul’s family who was asked to speak at his funeral.
“Around the time we first met, I was also working as a solo artist at Molly’s Fish Market in Oakland, NY, and he would come in and visit all the time,” Pallo remembers of his old friend. “In one year, we counted all the times he came in, and he visited 86 times! Sometimes he would come in two nights a week, other weeks he would come in three times, and so forth. After a while, sometime around 1983, he told me that he really wanted to get back out there playing again and wanted to play Monday nights somewhere. He wanted to play in New York, so we hooked it up with Fat Tuesdays in New York City, and we ended up doing it for the next 12 years … every Monday night.”
Of course, Fat Tuesday’s closed its doors in 1995, after which Paul and Pallo moved their Monday-night residency to the Iridium across the street from New York’s Lincoln Center. Over the years, however, their friendship transcended the boundaries of any normal band leader/band musician relationship. Paul’s generosity never failed to amaze Pallo, and his endless yearning for good times and good humor will always be fondly remembered by Pallo in the countless Les Paul stories he’s sure to be telling for the rest of his own life.
“His friendship meant more to me than anything else,” Pallo said somberly. “When my mom passed away some years ago, I remember I had to go to the funeral home and make all the arrangements. When I got there I saw this huge arrangement of flowers that had been sent by Les, and I just couldn’t believe it. For a man like him, he didn’t have to do that. Of course, he showed up at the funeral service, too. He didn’t like going to funerals, but he showed up for my mom’s funeral. He said, ‘You know, let’s go out for dinner. I want to take you out to dinner and let you know that I know what you’re going through.’ That really showed me what kind of man Les Paul really was, and how warm he was to me. Not a lot of people saw that side of him. I remember I cried when I saw the flowers. An icon and legend like him sending flowers to my mother … imagine that.”
Pallo remembered how Paul continued to show his fondness for cracking jokes right up until the end, even inside the hospital room in White Plains, NY, where Paul would eventually succumb to the pneumonia that had wreaked havoc on his body for the last two months of his life. “The last show we did together was on June 2, 2009,” Pallo recalled. “He went into the hospital on the following Monday to have a bunch of tests done, but then they sent him home. Then I went to see him and he ended up going back into the hospital, but they told him again there was nothing wrong with him. Then he went back one last time, and I went to visit him again. He looked fine. He was in good shape when I last saw him.”
Apparently good enough shape to remember a scene from the 1970s horror movie, The Exorcist. Said Pallo, “Here’s a funny story… when I was there a priest came into the room and says, ‘Hey, there’s a fly in here.’ Then Les answered him, ‘It wasn’t here until you walked in!’ The priest didn’t think it was funny at all, but we were breaking up. He was always humorous like that.” Pallo, along with Parrott, Colianni and the Iridium management team, are joining forces to continue the legacy of the Les Paul Trio by inviting guest guitarists to take the stage with the band every Monday night in honor of Les Paul. Some of the players that have already joined the trio are Stanley Jordan, Bucky Pizzarelli, Steve Miller and former New York Yankees’ centerfielder Bernie Williams. Some of the names booked for future appearances include the likes of Larry Coryell, Jose Feliciano, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, former Journey guitarist Neil Schon, and former Guns N’ Roses six-stringer Slash. Pallo promises more guitarists are on the horizon, he just hasn’t had the time to return all the calls he’s received since his good friend’s passing.
“There’s just so much to say, and so much to do,” Pallo said. “All I know is that from here on out, every time I play my Les Paul guitar, all I have to do is look up at the name on the guitar and point to it. And I don’t care if the audience sees it or not, but I’ll always know he’s there with me.”