Les Paul was with us for 94 years, adding longevity to his long list of accomplishments. He was one of those once-in-a-lifetime distinct talents who was truly ageless. Which is why I was surprised to read that he first formed the Les Paul Trio in 1936! I knew he played with Armstrong and Crosby, but I thought it was in the fifties, when they were older and he was very young. Not at all, since he was born in 1915.
And he invented his culture-changing guitar in 1940/41. During the war. This is still feeling like a time warp to me. From the New York Times: "Seeking to create electronically sustained notes on the guitar, he attached strings and two pickups to a wooden board with a guitar neck. 'The log,' as he called it, was probably the first solid-body electric guitar and became the most influential one. 'You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding,' Mr. Paul once said."
Who else was thinking about electric guitars while the big bands were at the apex of their power? Well, that's what the geniuses do.
His guitar innovation was part of an electronic sound that he would help to usher in. On solo guitar he bridged the gap between the work of Eddie Lang and Django Rheinhardt in the thirties and all the lead guitarists of the rock era to come.
One of the best recordings of his solo guitar work is "It's Been a Long, Long Time," with Bing Crosby and the Les Paul Trio from 1945. There is a stunning clarity to the collaborative interpretation of the piece between Crosby's vocals and Paul's playing. Bing was often over-orchestrated with John Scott Trotter, which makes this exposed, pared down arrangement so special to the Crosby fan. He never needed all that overblown sound, just a talent like Les Paul, who harkened back to Crosby's early work with Lang. (And speaking of the big bands, Harry James also had a #1 hit with this Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn song in 1945. What a pivot point between the quickly fading sound of the big bands and the oncoming sound of electric music!)
Paul would go on to many superlative achievements, including the 1947 "Lover (When You're Near Me)," where he played all 8 instruments before the development of multitrack processing. "How High the Moon" is part of the very fabric of the 1950s.
Here's the Bing & Les duet, which someone put on YouTube just last month as the soundtrack to stills of great film lovers. I think Les would have liked this--he always said he just wanted to make people happy.