A sure sign something big was happening at Manhattan's Hard Rock Cafe: Even the steady stream of record company heavies had to show their cream-colored invitations to get past the club's hulking door wardens. There was good reason for this breach of music-industry protocol. The midnight crowd inside had already grown to claustrophobic proportions, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the choicest collection of guitar monsters since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bash last January. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd was the first to barrel through the throng, followed minutes later by Jon Bon Jovi and his heavy metal sidekick Richie Sambora. Then Eddie Van Halen was ushered through the crush with singer Patty Smyth in tow. Finally, at 1 a.m., in walked the guest of honor: Les Paul, the electronics wizard who, by helping to develop the solid-body electric guitar and the world's first multiple-track tape recorder in the early '50s, revolutionized the sound of American popular music.

Though one of his guitars (some of which sell for up to $20,000) hangs at the Hard Rock, Paul, 73, isn't exactly an avid fan of the earsplitting sounds his inventions have wrought. "It ain't no good if you can't hum it," he says. Nor does he bear any resemblance to the spike-haired musicians he calls friends—most of whom were still tinkering with toy pianos when Paul and his late wife, singer Mary Ford, were racking up chart-topping tunes ("How High the Moon" among them). Yet the hard rockers who were present consider Paul a kindred spirit. "I fell in love with the guy the first time I met him," said Van Halen. "He didn't come off with any attitude like, 'Who's this young punk?' I looked him straight in the eyes and gave him a big hug and a kiss."

It wouldn't be the last time. Eddie had been showering Les with kisses for hours at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theater. Van Halen, Gilmour, the Stray Cats, B.B. King, Steve Miller, Stanley Jordan, Jan Hammer, Carly Simon, Rita Coolidge, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter had just wrapped up filming Les Paul: He Changed the Music, a tribute concert airing on cable TV in October. After three hectic days of rehearsal, the participants were ready to shake loose.

"This was just one of those magic nights," said Brian Setzer, whose Stray Cats rollicked through an impromptu 30-minute set at the Hard Rock. Giving their first public performance since 1985, lead singer-guitarist Setzer, bassist Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom had reunited to honor Paul. Such moments touched the man of the hour. "It's just overwhelming to be getting so much recognition from all of these young guitarists," said Paul. "I'm just glad to see them all having so much fun with my toys."