I have always had a difficult time removing the name, addresses or phone numbers of friends or family who pass away. As I am now in my lower mid-fifties, my directories are changing balance from the living to the dead at a faster pace than I am now, or want to be, used to.
Just one week after I wrote of my rocky but priceless friendship with the great Billy Lee Riley, I am faced with reliving my short but equally priceless time spent with Les Paul. Although at 94 Les was quite a few years older than Billy, he was the picture of health when I photographed him just a few months ago signing a guitar for Hungry for Music’s charity auction.
From what I understand, Les played his guitar almost to the moment of the end. I can believe that. The following remembrance may involve more people than Les, but none of the events would have happened without him – just like the direction of rock and roll with the electric guitar and multi-tracking – if there had never been a Mr. Lester William Polsfuss.
After four years of seeking funds to make a comeback record with Scotty Moore & D.J. Fontana, Elvis’ original guitarist and drummer, I finally found an investor who saw the value in preserving their talent on tape with an array of superstar guests who were influenced by them or Elvis. In 1996 a multi-guest recording was still a special event, not the tired and overdone genre it is today.
The very first call I made turned out to be a ringer in many ways. Jane Rose, Keith Richard’s longtime manager/friend, had been aware of my proposed project from the beginning and Keith had committed by a handwritten letter to Scotty – with the provision that our schedule would not interfere with his Stones recording or touring. I can’t remember if it was Jane or Keith who suggested I contact Les Paul about participating in the project. They gave me the number of Lou Paulo, Les’ right hand man and second guitarist on his Monday night sessions at the Iridium, a small but well respected jazz club in NYC.
Lou told me Les was preparing a similar record to be produced by Keith and his pal Rob Fraboni, a veteran producer I knew from working with The Band. He suggested Scotty perform on his record and Les would respond in kind and love to help out. He also invited Scotty and me to Les’ 81st birthday bash in early June. Scotty was not one to quickly agree to trips involving airports and hotels, especially a short trip. This was different. He immediately said yes and had me book the flights and hotels as quickly as I could. He had met Les over the years and each had a mutual respect but Les was one of a handful of guitarists that Scotty considered inspiring and innovational.
It didn’t take much convincing the investor of our recording to allow us to add the trip to New York to the recording budget. Not only would it be pretty big news that Scotty Moore was making his first trip to New York since his Elvis days but for a day and a night, we would be in the company of Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Jeff Beck and any number of guitarists and music business bigs attending the event. Scotty was excited to learn that his hero of heroes, Tal Farlow was confirmed for the event. Unfortunately, Tal’s health kept him away but Scotty would meet him in just a few weeks at another event.
I was still trying to grasp the reality of a kid from Bumfuck, Alabama flying to New York with Scotty Moore for Les Paul’s birthday party with Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood & Jeff Beck, and not lose control. I booked the flight a day early so Scotty could adjust to the city and be well rested for the big event which would include an all-star party followed by a VIP only concert in the downstairs bar at the old Iridium. It would be on this trip, my first with Scotty that I learned that all he required for his comfort was a TV with CNN, good air conditioning and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. Upon checking in to the midtown Sheraton, I contact Lou Paulo to let him know we made it and Scotty would definitely be in attendance. In the early days of Scotty’s return to the public, it was always best to expect a last minute change of plans. I then called Jane Rose to let Keith know that Scotty was in town and give him the number of his room. I was thinking that Keith and/or Ronnie would invite Scotty to dinner. Scotty likes his dinner early, around the time Keith & Ronnie wake up on their days off. I suggested we go out for a nice meal on the expense account but Scotty preferred the comfort of his hotel room and his friend Johnny Walker. We were just across the street from the legendary Stage Deli, and knowing how much Scotty enjoyed big sandwiches, I made the trip for two of New York’s finest overstuffed sandwiches. Knowing Scotty liked his privacy and not yet having established our relationship, I retired to my room when the meal was over. 23 years down the line, Scotty still talks about that sandwich – which he ate in one sitting.
The next morning at breakfast I asked Scotty if Keith or Ronnie had called. They hadn’t, but Lou Paulo called to express how happy they were that he was attending. Lou also asked if Scotty had brought his guitar. Scotty had specifically told me that he was going for the party and to see Les and Tal, not for his New York debut. That would not be the case.
I made several calls to Jane Rose to try to connect Keith with Scotty and I could tell he was feeling a bit dejected. A phone call came from Jane with the information that Keith and Ronnie had been celebrating at Keith’s Connecticut estate but were on their way into the city. Once again, I gave her Scotty’s room number and we waited. It was past time for the party to begin and Scotty had wanted to go early, visit with his friends and heroes and make an early exit to avoid the requisite jam session. Around 7:00 PM, Scotty told me the news that Keith had finally called but only to tell him that he and Ronnie would not be attending because of their over-celebrating in Connecticut and in the limo. I arranged for the car to pick us up and Scotty seemed OK with the change of plans. After all, he would get to meet his idol Tal Farlowe.
When we arrived at the Iridium, the streets outside were filled with gawkers and news people. The relatively small club was overfilled and we would not have gotten through the door if not for the special VIP passes that were signed by Les himself. Just before we entered, two middle-aged men approached Scotty and wanted his attention. To my surprise, they were Roger McGuinn and Gene Cornish, two of my own heroes. Scotty was cordial and we all went into the party together. I had known Roger for a few years from promoting a tour with him and Richard Thompson so he felt comfortable saying to me, “He doesn’t have a clue who we are, does he?” I think Roger and Gene enjoyed that he thought the were just appreciative fans more than I did.
Once inside, it was a hustle and bustle of music industry people and fans lucky enough to secure a ticket for the Gibson-sponsored event. In addition to guitarists from every generation since the 1930s, there were entertainment giants from the stage and screen. I was immediately impressed that an elderly gentleman on an oxygen machine and in a wheelchair was Mr. Henny “take my wife please” Youngman. He looked like he was on his last legs, so to speak and, sadly, he was – he passed away two weeks later.
Rob Fraboni, a producer and close friend of Keith’s rescued Scotty, Gene, Roger and me from the guitarists, fans and onlookers that could not believe it was actually Elvis’ reclusive guitarist in the flesh. As we entered the music room, Les was getting his gear set up but stopped in his tracks when he saw Scotty. It had been decades since the two of them had seen each other but it was like there was not time between. I left them alone to visit and persuaded the doorman to allow our first former documentary director/photographer in the door with his camera.
Scotty found his VIP table and began the first in a long line of Johnny Walker’s. For every one he ordered, one was delivered from any number of guests in the crowded room. We had just learned that Tal Farlow was ill, in a different way than Keith and Ronnie, and would not be attending. Scotty took the news in kind and told me that, as he had said his congratulations and chatted with Les and Lou, he would signal me when he had had enough celebrating.
I had never met the master of the electric guitar before but his influence was in my genes. My way of dealing with situations like this was to go with the flow, enjoy myself and then scour the photographs or film just to make sure it really happened. Les and his combo played their prepared one-hour set and then started calling guests from the audience. Although I was across the table and the music and crowd were loud, I could read the message in Scotty’s face that told me, no way, he would walk on stage. He really did enjoy himself and I know he felt good about the attention he was getting from younger musicians so we stayed for another half hour before he signaled for an exit. I can’t recall if it was Scotty or me that thought it would be a nice gesture to wave goodbye to Les but Scotty had no intention of walking to the front of the stage. I learned that the kitchen had a door directly to the side of the stage so I grabbed Scotty’s arm and led him falteringly through the crowd and into the next room. We had a very close view of Les and his combo and a clear shot for a wave. Before we knew it, the tune they were playing was over and Les says to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Scotty Moore!” and points to Lou to grab Scotty as the crowd cheered. Lou brought Scotty onstage and as he moved to exit, the next thing we knew, he was on a stool beside Les with a Gibson hollow body guitar in his hands.
Anyone in attendance remembers the rest of the evening as awkwardly touching as Scotty, a lover of jazz guitar, fumbled for the chords to keep up with Les and struggled for the solos that Les seemed to call out every other bar. Anyone in attendance also remembers how special it was to see these two icons performing for the first, and last, time together. Thankfully, everyone in the audience except Roger and Camilla McGuinn and I were likely just as inebriated as Scotty, so they did not mind the extra “jazz” notes. As I stood in the kitchen waiting to rescue my boss and get him safely to the Sheraton, I notice the remnants of the Les Paul guitar-shaped 81st Birthday Cake behind me waiting for the trash. The headstock was left intact and the tuning peg gumdrops still attached. I had just enough time to grab all six when Scotty was able to make his exit for the stage door to a round of loud cheers from people who had witness his second public performance in 24 years. The first being the Elvis’ 15th Anniversary Memorial concert with Carl Perkins and James Burton. As for those gumdrop keys, they sit in a special collection of rock and roll oddities I have collected over the years including the broken pieces of Jeff Beck’s Stratocaster case. That is a different story.
I fully expected Scotty to be furious with me for allow him to be dragged onstage against his wishes and, in his eyes, embarrass himself. To my surprise he laughed and said, “Boy that was fun! Like a rollercoaster – your afraid but have got to take it on!” I got him a towel to wipe his ever-present sweat and big glass of water to lessen the impact of so many large whiskeys. By the time he rested in the kitchen, the show was over and most all of the guest had left the room. What came next is a moment I will treasure for the rest of my life. I called over our first former director/photographer to take a picture of the two guitar giants, after a couple of shots; Scotty pulls me into frame beside him and Les. I don’t know if I can gauge who has the biggest grin of the three of us, but I knew then that my entire career in the music business had hit it’s peak. I had a clue, but could not be sure, that there would be more moments like this.
Les was genuinely happy to see Scotty and would not have enjoyed himself as much if he had not gotten to play three or four standards, and call out the changes, with the man who gave Elvis his distinct sound on possibly the great records in the history of rock and roll. Scotty probably still has a good laugh at what he remembers of his first trip to New York in decades to see an old friend and comrade in guitar innovation.
As for me, I would get to visit with Mr. Paul one more brief time when I accompanied a friend with a guitar for Les to sign for a charity auction. We waited in the back of the new Iridium for Les to finish his set and cordially greet each person who wanted a handshake and thank hem for coming out on a cold New York night. He said his hellos to us and sat down to sign his namesake guitar and looked not one bit tired or anxious to get out of the club. I had brought along a folder with a copy of the photo of the three of us and asked him if he would mind signing it. He looked at it, smiled and said, “I remember that night well – we had some fun!”