Picks and Pans Review: Les Paul: the Legend and the Legacy

updated 03/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Les Paul

Guitarist Les Paul is one of pop music's most enduring innovators. This fine four-CD set celebrates his seminal years as an artist, inventor and TV host—the decade between 1948 and 1958 when Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, produced a phenomenal string of hits that showed off his pioneering design and recording ideas.

Paul is noted for his invention of the solidbody electric guitar, which enabled him to create richer, rounder sounds than he could have with acoustic instruments. He is less well-known as the originator of multitrack recording and as a tireless experimenter with such sonic marvels as distortion, feedback, amplification and reverberation.

What emerged from all of this technological tinkering made everything Paul played sound like it was spilling from a champagne bottle. Effervescent is the word for both his own novelty numbers like "Walkin' & Whistlin' Blues" and his treatment of such standards as "How High the Moon," which reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 1951.

Featuring a staggering 75 songs, several snippets from the radio program Les Paul & Mary Ford at Home, advertising jingles, previously un-released recordings and a 68-page companion booklet that includes a track-by-track interview with Paul, this set is a must-have for fans of the man who began his music career at age 13 in Waukesha, Wis., with the showbiz name Red Hot Red.

Pop tunes that Paul picked up and "Les Paulverized" range from the Spanish-flavored "Vaya con Dios" and the Tin Pan Alley chestnut "Bye Bye Blues" to "Moritat," the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht theme from The Threepenny Opera. All have a high-pitched, light-as-air, speeded-up feel to them, as if they had been spun through a cotton-candy machine. That's even true of "Caravan," which Paul recorded so soon after being in a major car accident that he was still wearing a body cast—with his right arm set in guitar-playing position.

Paul's covers of these and all the other songs may occasionally sound nutty, but they are never boring. Listen to "Hip Billy Boogie," a Paul original played on a solidbody prototype he dubbed the Log, or to Mary Ford's silky-smooth vocals on "Mister Sandman," and you are almost ready to believe there is such a thing as good elevator music.

Ford died in 1977 at 53, but Paul, now 76 and living in Mahwah, N.J., still makes regular club appearances. His status as a living legend will only be enhanced by this valentine to his musical legacy. (Capitol)

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