Still, it infuriates me that words like "genius" are floated around in relation to a minor talent like Michael Jackson and true genius—like that of Les Paul—gets nary a mention in the popular press. The day after Les Paul died, "Entertainment Tonight" devoted more than half their show to discussing the disposition of Michael Jackson's body.
Let's be clear as a bell, shall we? Michael Jackson was talented, but he was not a genius. He had great people working for him (including Quincy Jones, who probably qualifies), some great promoters, and an adoring public that doesn't realize they're being manipulated like puppets on a string (whoever insisted that MTV refer to him as the "King of Pop" should get a freaking marketing medal of some kind). He was a great vocalist, a good dancer, and a smart marketer. He was also a walking freakshow, and he doesn't pass my "princess test" (i.e., would I leave my daughter alone in a room with him?).
Les Paul, on the other hand, truly qualified as a genius. Again, let's be perfectly clear: Modern music as we know it would not exist if it weren't for Les Paul. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
Can you say the same for MJ?
Aside from the guitar that bears his name, Les Paul pioneered multi-track recording. That seems so obvious today, but at the time, his technique was a revelation. Can you name two more important contributions to modern music than multitracking and the electric guitar?
And aside from that, he was a master guitar player, pioneering modern jazz techniques, swing, country/western and improvised soloing...the list goes on and on. And in 2005, at the age of 90, he became the oldest living individual to have a record debut on the Billboard Hot 200. The man was relevant long after his contemporaries were forgotten. He was no flash in the pan. Les Paul was a genius.
A friend of mine is a local musician of some note, and he told me a story recently about playing on stage with Les Paul. As he told it, he was with a friend at a table in a small club where Les Paul was playing, and the friend got rather drunk and obnoxious. He started hollering out at the stage, "Hey, you should let my buddy John sit in with you! He can play!". John tried to quiet him down, but the friend kept it up. So Les and the band invited John onstage. Expecting the worst, John meekly approached, picked up a guitar, and after agreeing on a song they both knew, he began to play with the master.
As John tells the story, it took him a minute or so to catch on to Les' groove, but soon they were jamming like old friends. He stuck around for a couple more songs, and was invited backstage after the gig.
"I was worried that I wasn't good enough for him," John told me. "I said that to one of the band members, and they told me that this kind of thing happens all the time. People want to play with Les, and sometimes he brings them up as a challenge. Believe me, if you weren't good, he would have kicked you off right away."
John tells me he had a wonderful conversation with Les Paul. They discussed vintage gear, how they modified certain amplifiers to get a certain sound, and chatted about music in general. John told me that even at Les' advanced age, he was a gracious and kind host.
Clearly, Les Paul was a class act. That's more than I can say for most celebrities these days. At the risk of sounding like an out of touch curmudgeon, there's nothing about Michael Jackson that inspires me to want to emulate him in any way, shape or form. On the other hand, I'd be blessed to have a life like Les Paul. Talented, respected by his peers, gracious in his elder years, and dying a peaceful death surrounded by loving family and friends. Who could want more?
Rest in peace, Paul. There will never be another one like you.
edit: You can't make this stuff up. After I published this post, look at the graphic that came up: