Interview: Jeff Beck Pays Tribute on 'Rock 'N' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul'

When Les Paul passed away at the age of 94 on August 13, 2009, most obituaries overstated a few of his contributions and understated others.

Some claimed he invented the electric guitar (he didn’t even invent the solidbody guitar, though he was among the first to experiment with its design) while barely mentioning his pioneering work in the development of multitrack recording. And while many articles mentioned his namesake Gibson Les Paul guitar, few discussed just how great a guitarist he was.

While Les Paul deserved accolades for many achievements, his greatest contribution of all was almost entirely ignored—his incredible music. The songs he recorded in the early Fifties with his wife, singer Mary Ford, paved the way for rock and roll and inspired most of the genre’s finest early players, like Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, and Gene Vincent guitarist Cliff Gallup.

Les’ music influenced Sixties rock players as well, including Steve Miller (who met Les when he was only five), Peter Frampton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck, who performed a stunning version of “How High the Moon” with vocalist Imelda May as a tribute to Les Paul at the 2010 Grammy Awards.

A few months after the tribute, Beck decided to expand upon that tribute by performing a pair of shows on June 8 and 9—the latter date would have been Paul’s 95th birthday—at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, the same nightclub where Les used to play his weekly shows. Joining Beck was singer Imelda May, her band featuring singer/guitarist Darrel Higham, and a variety of special guests that included Brian Setzer and Gary U.S. Bonds.

In addition to playing “How High the Moon,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Vaya Con Dios” and five other songs from the Les Paul catalog, Beck performed several of his favorite early rock and roll songs by Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio as well as classic instrumentals like “Peter Gunn,” “Sleep Walk” and “Apache.” In the course of the 27-song set, he showed how Les’ musical vision paved the way for rock and roll.

“I wish I wasn’t born lazy, because I think Les would have enjoyed this tribute if I had done it while he was still alive,” Beck says. “His son Rusty was in tears that night. He kept saying, ‘If only my dad was here to see this!’ As much as I would have loved for Les to have been there, I don’t know if I could have played if he was—especially if he was making rude remarks!” he says with a laugh. “If he had been there and I hadn’t known it until afterwards, I would have been okay.”

A DVD and a CD of the tribute show called Rock ’n’ Roll Party Honoring Les Paul was recently released, and Beck and the Imelda May band are taking the show on the road to 11 select cities in the United States. Hearing Beck accurately duplicate Les Paul’s classic licks is a rare pleasure, and it’s hard to think of anyone who could have given Les a more proper send off. Les often said that Beck was his favorite of all of his guitar disciples, and with Rock ’n’ Roll Party, Beck returns the favor by proving that Les Paul was the favorite of his many influences.

GUITAR WORLD: You’ve had a long friendship with Les Paul. In 1988, you inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—

Not very well either. We were sitting together at table 1A, right in the front, and before I went up he asked, “Do you have your act together?” I said, “Yeah. It’s all right. I’ve got all my notes.” Then an announcement was made: “Before Jeff Beck comes onstage to induct Les Paul, please look at this.” And there on the big projection screen was everything that I had written down for my notes! [laughs] Les turned to me and said, “How do you feel now, sucker?” So I had to wing it. And then I walked off the stage without giving Les the award! Les has a great sense of humor, and he loved all of that.

I heard that the first time you played with him onstage, he unplugged your guitar cord, which was one of his favorite jests.

At the time I didn’t know that. I was playing my third solo and I was starting to go off and get really fancy with it. He reached right down and pulled the lead out.

When was the first time you heard Les Paul’s music?

I was probably only six or seven. The song was “How High the Moon,” which was his biggest hit at the time [1951]. The BBC used it as a signature tune for some program [Housewives’ Choice, a daytime radio program of music deemed appealing for housewives]. I remember hearing it more than once. Every time it came on I’d say, “Mum, there’s that tune again.” Then she said, “I’ve read about him. He’s just a box of tricks.” I didn’t care, because it sure sounded great to me. I don’t know whether six-year-old kids then were as smart as they are today—they’re getting married at 10—but I remember that the sound was fantastic, especially the slap echo and the trebly guitar. I had never heard an instrument like that before.

Up to that point all I listened to was marching bands from World War II and dance orchestras that played music to entertain housewives. All of a sudden, this scatty guitar came over the airwaves. To a kid like me, who had been around music all of the time, it sounded so different. It still sounds fresh today compared to contemporary music, so you can imagine what it sounded like compared to a bunch of trombones. It just leapt out of the speakers.

It must have been like something from outer space.

BECK It was. The slap echo is what did it, along with the sped up guitars and the multitracked vocals. I was more thrilled than ever when I finally had the chance to meet him. He freely admitted that “How High the Moon” was created with overdubs. Anybody who knows the slightest thing about music knows that there was more than one voice singing, and they all sounded like Mary Ford. Unless you’ve only got half a brain, you know that the guitars were sped up. If Les couldn’t have played as beautifully naturally as he did on his recordings, I would have dismissed him. But when you listen to “Deep in the Blues” there’s no arguing about his ability to play. And when he played with Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole he played some incredible stuff.

It’s great how you’re giving early rock and roll and Les’ music the credit it deserves. Lots of rock guitarists have done countless tributes to the blues, but tributes to early rock and roll have been few and far between.

Nobody was playing tribute to the things that my life was built around. All of this great music came out of Memphis and Virginia, where they were doing really deep, triple-X rockabilly. This is strictly a party in honor of Les Paul. I’ve always enjoyed his real solos more than the trick stuff that he did. Les could really play and he didn’t need to do that. But Les had an impish personality as a musician. Mary Ford was more of the straight person in their act, and he was the comedian.

This tribute is like an encapsulated history of rock and roll. You have rockabilly, pop, blues and jazz.

It would be very time-consuming to do a full set of Les’ songs only. We pushed the boundary a little far by playing things like “Peter Gunn.” Anything that was outside the genre or outside of his catalog was still linked in some way. Les invented the slap echo that you hear on Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley’s early records. Cliff Gallup [Vincent’s guitarist] and Scotty Moore [Presley’s guitarist] did a tremendous job with it. We decided to make it a party rather than to focus only on Les. We devoted a special section of the set to him, and the fact that we were playing on the same Iridium stage where he played his weekly shows added to the tribute element. The energy and the positivity of playing the weekly gig at the Iridium is what kept him going until he was 94. I don’t regret using that venue for one minute.

Les played in small, intimate clubs where you could see everyone in the crowd. I remember going to one of his birthday shows when Iridium was located by Lincoln Center. He kept bothering me to come up onstage and play, and finally they got some young girl to talk me into it. I asked Les what we were going to play, and he said, “Let me think about it,” and then he walked off the stage and left me there by myself! [laughs] He went off to chat with some friends over in the corner.

I went to several of his shows before that when he was playing at Fat Tuesday’s. One time, I took my girlfriend; I was probably 42 and my girlfriend was 19, but we were a proper couple. She wasn’t some young thing I had just picked up. We were creeping down the steps just as Les started playing a really quiet song. I tried to get to the bar without him seeing me, but he yelled out, “Jeff! You still fooling around?” [laughs] The one thing I didn’t want him to do was call attention to me and have the audience see me with this young creature.

How did you discover Imelda May? Not only is she a perfect match for Mary Ford’s vocals but she also has a great band.

I was at an awards ceremony with Jimmy Page and a few other people, and we were bored stiff. Afterwards, somebody said that we should head straight to [London jazz club] Ronnie Scott’s to see Imelda May. They said she was the real deal when it came to rockabilly. We hotfooted it straight out of there and got there just in time to catch the last couple of numbers. She came up to us afterwards and said, “How ya doin’?” in her Irish accent. We struck it up right away. I kept my eye on her, and lo and behold she married Darrel Higham, who was a guitarist in the Big Town Playboys. It’s all a big family.

Imelda and Darrel seem like the real deal when it comes to music of that era. How did you put the set list together for the tribute?

Imelda’s band already knew most of the songs, because they grew up with that stuff. I could pick out all of my favorite records and it would probably be a mirror image of what they would pick: Gene Vincent, Little Richard, or anything with Earl Palmer on drums [Palmer played for Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson, Ritchie Valens, Fats Domino and Little Richard, among others]. For me the light was switched off in 1959, as it was for her. When you get a girl who is only 36 saying that she likes Gene Vincent... If you go down on Sunset Boulevard and ask a girl that age if she likes Gene Vincent she’ll probably think you’re talking about a restaurant or something. We have an alignment that is just uncanny. The more I can do to promote that music, the better. I really believe that that music should never be allowed to die.

I compared your performance of “How High the Moon” with the original Les Paul and Mary Ford recording, and they sound incredibly close to each other.

When we played it at the Grammys last year we had Rhonda Smith on upright bass, Darrel on guitar and Narada Michael Walden on drums. It was a wacky combination. At the rehearsals, we were walking past these empty seats on the way to the stage and in the front row were cards with names like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga. Poor Imelda had to see who she was going to be singing to. During the performance, I saw them scowling at Imelda because she looked so great.

You studied Cliff Gallup’s guitar playing in detail when you recorded Crazy Legs in the early Nineties. Considering all the different guitar players you covered in this tribute, it must have been like writing an encyclopedia.

Well, it was all part of my misspent youth. When I was done with trying to sound like Cliff in the late Fifties or early Sixties and started listening to Les’ solos, I started thinking it wasn’t even worth it to try going there. The real playing is possible if you get on it and get properly equipped; you can figure out those flick-offs that make it sound like Les Paul. All of his recordings and performances are beautifully crafted. There’s no bullshit. They’re dynamic solos. I don’t know if they’re worked out in advance, but they don’t sound that way. They sound sprightly, and they’re the best solo you could ever play for that music in that situation.

You adopted his triplet pull-offs as your own, although Cliff Gallup used those frequently as well.

Grady Martin also did that, so it was already there. Even Django Reinhardt was doing that back in the Thirties and Forties. Django didn’t do it a lot, but it’s there.

It’s interesting to compare Django’s version of “How High the Moon” to the version Les recorded later. Les was a big fan of Django’s playing, but in that instance he didn’t copy many of his licks and put his own mark on the song.

You can tell that Les was a big fan of Django. With all due respect to everyone and their wives, there is really only one guitar player, and I’m afraid it has to be Django. There’s gypsy spirit in there that no one can duplicate. I know there are hundreds of guitarists who copy it note for note, but it ain’t the real thing. There’s magic in them fingers—both of them! Once, just for the hell of it, I gaffer-taped the third and fourth fingers on my left hand together for a whole day just to see what it would be like. It was bloody uncomfortable. I went to the guitar half a dozen times that day and I was amazed at how quickly you can adapt.

You played quite a variety of guitars during the show—a Gibson ES-175, a Gretsch Duo Jet, a Telecaster, a Les Paul Standard, and your signature Strat.

I couldn’t not play a Les Paul guitar. Les always used to point to my Strat and say, “Why do you have that piece of crap around your neck?” I’d say, “Yours are too heavy. I had to drill holes in it.”

It was really interesting to see you play the ES-175.

I had to. The only way you can get Scotty Moore’s tone is with a big hollowbody guitar. And to get Cliff’s tone you need to play a 1955 Gretsch Duo Jet with a fixed-arm Bigsby. Every screw had to be exactly the same. I got that Duo Jet after I recorded Crazy Legs, and it’s identical to Cliff’s guitar. The inside of the case smelled like an antique shop when I first got it.

Your playing on “Cry Me a River” is an unexpected surprise. You’re known for playing jazz fusion, but here you’re playing traditional chord-melody jazz.

That was a transitional stage in the show. You had the Les Paul feel but also the glam of “The Girl Can’t Help It.” We tried to make this rock and roll stew of all the music we loved but focus on Les as well. That song was part of setting the right mood before we went into Les’ music.

You’ve recorded several versions of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” over the years, but this is the first time you’ve done a faithful reproduction of the Rock and Roll Trio’s version form 1956. You really captured the vibe of the original recording.

I was born with that. My sister came home one day, from this very posh school she was attending, with a 10-inch album of the Rock and Roll Trio. As if Cliff Gallup wasn’t enough, here was this wild, screaming southern guy [Burnette] with this distorted Telecaster. It was more aggressive than Cliff, whose playing was more demon-like. On the beginning of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” there was so much physical aggression. You could tell that the strings were really being spanked.

Those bass notes get that wonderful distortion.

It honks. I don’t know how it honks like that. They say that Grady Martin was actually the guitar player on that, and if you’ve listened to Grady Martin’s playing, I think you’d agree. There’s no doubt in my mind.

Paul Burlison created so much folklore with his story about loosening the tube in his amp to create that distorted tone. I own a Fifties Fender Deluxe amp like he allegedly used, and when I loosen the tube it doesn’t sound anything like that.

I can get pretty close to it by turning up the amp to natural valve distortion and taking the treble off so you don’t get the twang. It chokes it up. Who knows what they did? I couldn’t get the notes exact because they’re so camouflaged. That record is beautifully crafted. The guitar is just honking all the way through it, but you can’t hear a recycling riff. It seems to be random notes, and it constantly changes. Bastard. [laughs]

With the Yardbirds, you stripped “Train Kept A-Rollin’” down to the core and developed this aggressive, hot-rodded riff.

That was the beginning of punk, I think. The finesse of the Rock and Roll Trio’s version escaped us. I just nailed what turned out to be heavy metal. It wasn’t called heavy metal at the time. I wanted that. I wanted a full-on shredding sound that would blow your head off. That suited the Yardbirds perfectly. There was that stop in the middle and then that climbing riff where we all went crazy.

Your version of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” is even better than the one you recorded in 1985. Even though you didn’t use slide this time, you captured the phrasing and vibe of the lap steel on the original Santo and Johnny recording using your fingers and the tremolo bar.

That was a bit of a tricky one. I did have to grab the slide at the very end to hit those high notes. Some of the choices we made are a bit tongue in cheek, but I felt it’s an iconic guitar piece that shouldn’t be left out. Everything we did was from the early-to-late Fifties, with the exception of “Remember Walking in the Sand,” but I still thought that song fit the Iridium gig, and it added to the variety. I wasn’t sure that people would want to hear a whole night of Les Paul.

You also did a nice version of “Apache” by the Shadows, paying tribute to Hank Marvin and Britain’s contributions to early rock and roll.

I thought it was Cliff Gallup when I first heard it. That single-repeat Binson Echorec tape echo was all Cliff to me. I learned soon afterwards that it wasn’t him, because Cliff Gallup wasn’t recording music in 1960 when that came out. Hank Marvin was my closest source. Knowing that he was on English soil was a big inspiration. I loved the work he did with the Shadows and Cliff Richard when he was a rock singer in a pink jacket and black shirt and not a Euro pop star.

The recording has the energy of a live performance and the polish of a studio creation.

We just threw caution to the wind. We wanted everyone to get the spirit of Les and have a damn good time in his honor and memory. I didn’t want the sound coming from the stage to fry people’s heads off. I scaled down quite a bit and played through a Fender Pro Junior. You don’t need much volume. The P.A. handled that. It’s not a heavy metal show, so you don’t want the guitar to drown everyone else out. Nothing is more annoying than a great singer getting drowned out by a loud guitar. I tried to keep that under control.

There was a big party for Les at the Hard Rock Cafe in the late Eighties, and a lot of well-known musicians showed up. I didn’t get up onstage to jam, because everyone was playing flat-out with distortion. Poor Les was sitting there, taking it all in. He hated distorted guitar tone. The two guitarists that I revered as the kingpins—Les and Cliff Gallup—played with clean tone. When I started playing, distortion was the bane of my life. I’d turn the bass all the way down so it didn’t encourage distortion, but it was inevitable. The bigger the crowds, the more volume you needed. Sometimes we’d play ballrooms jammed with a thousand people. When you’re playing through a Vox AC30, you feel as though no one can hear it past the edge of the stage, so I’d turn it up and out would come the distortion, and everyone would enjoy it.

You attracted an impressive variety of guests to the Iridium show.

The strangest guest in the audience was David Bowie. He was blown away. I didn’t know that he was so into Gene Vincent like I was. He saw my blue cap and noticed that one of the members of Gene’s band had signed it. He said, “Where did you get that?” It revealed right away that he was nutty about that whole thing. I never knew that.

He’s from the same area as you. I know that he worked with Jimmy Page early in his career.

We all came from the same six-mile radius. I’m sure we all listened to the same records. Page was a great link for me, because he was the only, and the nearest, person I knew who was as mad as I was about guitars. He seemed to have a better connection with London than I did because he did studio work there. I was just an out-of-town hillbilly.

But you pulled Jimmy into the spotlight with the Yardbirds, taking him out of his background role as a studio guitarist.

BECK We were looking for a bass player, and I just couldn’t bear having someone else hire one from an agency. I got along really well with Jimmy on a social level, so I asked him to join the band. I ended up shooting myself in the foot, because he ended up becoming the band’s second lead guitar player. That was turmoil. It was great for the Yardbirds because they were a turmoil party band, but I didn’t like having to wait for someone else to finish their solo before I could play. It all turned out well for him, didn’t it? [laughs]

You didn’t stay mad very long. You got back together with him after the Yardbirds to record “Beck’s Bolero.”

Several nights before the recording session, I went over to his house and he strummed out this rhythm on his Fender Electric XII. I started playing a simple melody over it, and that song was born in his front room. I wrote the bridge section later. That formula fit the Yardbirds as well. They stopped in the middle of half of their songs and did something different, going crazy in a different direction. I think that the Beach Boys took a good chunk of that from the Yardbirds with “Good Vibrations.” Back in the Sixties I was invited to perform on a TV show. I was backstage waiting to go on and they announced, “Unfortunately, the Beach Boys can’t be here, but we’re going to play their new single,” which was “Good Vibrations.” I was floored by the sound and the beauty of it, but when it stops and goes “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations...,” it was exactly something that the Yardbirds would do. I imagine that Brian Wilson was listening to everything at that time.

The Fifties and Sixties seemed like a great time for an aspiring guitarist to grow up in.

It was a very fruitful time. America was throwing stuff across the pond to us on a daily basis, and I just couldn’t keep up with it all. I was wondering how many other great things were going to happen this week. I’d go into record stores and buy jazz albums that I never even heard of. I couldn’t afford all of them, so I had to focus on what I really wanted. I just took a wild shot once and bought a Barney Kessell album because I liked the cover and the guitar on it. I never regretted it. The playing on that record is fantastic.

Music progressed rapidly each decade from the Thirties through the Seventies. After the Eighties it seems like things slowed down.

Music became very fashion driven during the Eighties. Somebody turned up with a baggy pair of pants and called themselves the New Romantics. Music became one-fingered synthesizer parts. That wasn’t for me. I couldn’t deal with that. I saw the demise of good-sounding records start to happen. It was like watching a grand building being left to decay and fall down. I’m glad that I never shut the door on my past and that I always respected my heroes, like Les Paul. His records outshone everything that I heard during the Eighties and even the Nineties.

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