Lou Pallo: The Epiphone Interview

Lou Pallo was Les Paul’s close friend and right hand man in the Les Paul Trio for over 28 years. Not only was he Les’s longest sitting bandmate but he also can be credited with inspiring Les to get back into music after his divorce from partner Mary Ford and the arrival of The Beatles brought an end to Les’s decade-long string of hits on the pop charts.

To celebrate Les’s life, Pallo rounded up friends and admirers to participate in a great new album and DVD, Thank You Les, that features Keith Richards, Slash, Billy F Gibbons, and Jose Feliciano as well as former members of the Les Paul Trio performing standards like “Brazil,” ‘Smile,” and Les’s favorite, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“Les was my guitar idol and I was honored to call him my friend for so many years,” wrote Pallo in the liner notes. “This tribute allows Les’ musicianship and sense of humor to take center stage, giving everyone the opportunity to experience the Les Paul we knew well and the music he adored.” Epiphone spoke with Lou about his first Epiphone, the legacy of the Les Paul Trio, sticking to the melody, and how Keith Richards gave Bing Crosby a run for his money during the sessions. As we celebrate Les' 100th birthday and beyond, Lou Pallo's deep feeling for Les's music and his times is critical to understanding how influential Les Paul was to 20th century popular music.

Les Paul had retired when you first met, is that right?
Lou Pallo: Yes. He had retired and I was working at a place in Greenwood Lake, New Jersey with a group. We were working in the lounge and in the back room they had big acts like Count Basie. So, Les stopped by to see Count Basie and I was playing out front and the waitress came over and said someone wants to talk to you at the bar. And when I went over to the bar, he says “Hi, I’m Les Paul.” I said. “Oh My God, the Les Paul?” And that was the start of our friendship—around 1963. And wow! He was my idol and that’s how I met him. He came in to see me. From there on we became friends, very close.

That particular night, he gave me his phone number and said give him a call. I called him the next day and he said come on over to the house. I was off that night. And we started playing at the house. When you went up to Les’s house in those days, he had a tape recorder going so he would tape what we were doing. We were fooling around, just playing standards, one after the other. It was a great thrill. We were jamming.

Does that tape still exist?
LP: Oh, the house had so many tapes I have no idea where they are now. I think a lot of the tapes are going to museums and stuff. But I don’t now where you’re gonna find that particular tape. It had Bing Crosby…anybody that came to the house.

From that day on he followed me. No matter where I worked he would show up. I’d play clubs, different towns in New Jersey, and here he walks in. “Oh my god! How’d you find me?” He’d say, “I know where you are all the time.” So he followed me around for years and years.

I worked a place 12 years in Oakland, New Jersey, Molly’s Fish Market, and one year Les showed up 86 times. In one year! It’s in his book. I think he was getting inspired to getting back into playing.

Did Les feel like he didn’t have as many close contemporaries in the ‘60s?
LP: You’re right and he was scouting around for someone like myself that he could work with. So we started playing locally at different venues, just the two of us. And it was great.

Were you composing for guitar as well?
LP: Not really. I just went along with him mostly. I kept up with the times, of course, even rock and roll stuff, and Les would play right along with me. But then he would do his standards, his book.

What inspired you to pick up guitar?
LP: Coming from an Italian family, every Sunday either at my parent’s house or someone else’s house, you’d go there and they would have guitars, mandolin and accordion. And we would just play. Under the grape vine, shall we say, which we had. And listening to them play, it just inspired me. I thought ‘this is great.’ My father played guitar—very little—just open chords. And I studied from a little book that he had and then I took lessons after that. My first good guitar was a 1947 Epiphone Blackstone. My father bought it from a store in Paterson, New Jersey. I still have it.

Who were your inspirations? Did you go to New York to hear music?
LP: Well Tony Mottola was my idol. Also, Les Paul. Those were my two idols. And that was the other thing. Here I am working with Les 28 years. How often does that happen? You see someone that you really idolize and then you’re working with him.

I met Tony Mottola in later years and got to be friends with him. He was great. Great musicianship. He played everything. He could play single note melodies, chords—he was all around.

When you were cutting Thank you Les, who impressed you by arriving ready to play in Les’ style?
LP: The first one that impressed me was Billy F Gibbons from ZZ Top. We were doing “September Song.” You have to picture Billy F Gibbons playing this and he did an excellent job. So pretty and so nice. Wow! I can’t believe this.

And his comments on the film! The first time I met Billy was at Fat Tuesdays (in New York City where the Les Paul Trio performed weekly throughout the ‘80s). He came in and said, “I’m gonna come up and sit in with you but I only play three chords.” What he meant by that is he plays a lot of blues and stuff. And he said, “You play so many other chords. When I play with you, Lou, you put about 50 chords in.” Which was a nice comment.

Of course the other one is Keith Richards. I told Keith what we’d like to do. He came in all prepared—it was Bing Crosby’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” He did a great job on that and I said ‘Holy mackerel, Keith! That was great.’

Have you ever thought of teaching Les’ style in an instructional video?
LP: That sounds good. I’ve done four instructional videos. They’re out there somewhere. I’m not sure how you find them. One has 10,000 hits. Just showing instructional stuff. Not Les’ style. Arpeggios, playing a chorus…staying with the changes. The main thing I learned from Les is the melody of a song. A lot of artists just don’t stick to the melody. And that’s the hardest thing to play is the melody.

Once you and Les began performing with the Trio every Monday night at Fat Tuesdays and then on to the Iridium, did you notice changes to Les’s style?
LP: When we put the trio together, Les would say we’re going to…well, he’d never tell us what we’re gong to do (laughs). He would come in and play a song that we’d never played before. But I knew the songs because I knew a lot of standards. But then I’d go home and look at the changes in a fake book or whatever I had to make sure they were the correct changes, which Les loved. I had the correct ones. And Les would love that. Because whenever we’d go to--say--California to play and someone would sit in with us, Les would always say, “Talk to Lou because Lou has the right changes.” I would make sure I had the right changes. Because you can substitute changes and a lot jazz musicians substitute changes that Les didn’t like. He liked the changes that were written and the way the song was written and I agree with him on that 100 percent.

Was that for keeping the melody strong?
LP: There you go. Yes. You hit it right on the head. Keep the melody strong. Like when we played “Over the Rainbow,” there hasn’t been one person to play it like Les—every note he hits is perfectly on. The prettiest I’ve ever heard anybody play it was Les Paul. And of course, we played the legit changes to the song. No substitutions.

Look for the CD and DVD September 11 and be sure to catch Lou Pallo and the Les Paul Trio whenever you’re in the Big Apple.

photo credit: Arnie Goodman/Sari Schorr