Sixty-eight years ago this week in 1951, life took a left turn for Epi's favorite mad scientist and electric Godfather, Les Paul
, when his revolutionary remake "How High the Moon" went to #1 on the Billboard
singles chart. Already a pop standard (Les called it 'a tired old dog of a tune
'), the new modern version of "How High the Moon" seemed to incorporate virtually every strand of American music ever made. Yet it sounded like it came from --well--the moon.
With its breakneck solos and Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar runs underneath Mary Ford's hall-of-mirror multi-tracked vocals and harmonies, "How High the Moon" was a virtual soundtrack to a future just beyond the horizon, a world of tomorrow far beyond the imagination of Walt Disney filled with rocket ships and psychedelic trips (courtesy of your local progressive dentist), and every song ever made on a device that fits in your back pocket.
While most European countries and England were still rationing sugar, rubber, and flour, the United States, its cities and industrial might untouched by World War II, was the most powerful nation on Earth in 1951. And in the era of super highways and skyscrapers, American music could no longer abide by terrestrial
confines. Pop music required something extra
terrestrial and Les Paul was just the man divined to provide it. Just ask him, he'd tell you so.
Les accomplished the trailblazing recording by layering rhythm, lead, and harmony guitar parts played on his cannibalized Epiphone "Log" (using the low strings for a bass line) recording back and forth between two customized mono 1/4" Ampex 300 tape machines, soon to be replaced with his own customized 8-track. Once that was done to his satisfaction, Les was ready for his wife Mary to put down her vocals. Thanks to her perfect pitch, Mary quickly recorded multiple melody and harmony vocal parts to go along with Les' quadruple stacked guitar parts. In Les' recollection, the entire recording took about an hour to make.
"I built two disc machines, and I'd bop between them while I played the first part and then added the second, third, fourth, fifth parts and so on.
" Les told Sound on Sound
. "After you'd go 25, 30 dubs down, that first part got to sound pretty bad. So, what we did was layer the parts down in the order that would best cope with the sound deterioration. Instead of putting the first part on first, we might put it on last — it was all about the importance of the part we were dealing with. If I was beating out a drum part, a rhythm, with my hands on the guitar, that could deteriorate all it wanted and it didn't matter, and the same applied if I was just laying down some organ chords with tremolo on them."
Les had first used this ingenious method to create his 1948 debut single for Capitol Records, "Lover," using two cutting lathes powered by Cadillac flywheels in his garage in Hollywood. The results were magnificent, weird, and instantly memorable. More singles followed as Les moved from recording to direct-to-disc to using his new Ampex magnetic tape recorder, a gift from pal Bing Crosby, who was an early investor in the company that would soon become a ubiquitous presence in studios around the U.S.
"How High the Moon" was the culmination of Les' long desire (inspired by a critique from his Mom) to make music that sounded different
and his decades in the business in the presence of pioneers like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt had convinced Les the future was not just about the song but about sound.
Even though "How High the Moon" was in essence one long guitar solo, it drove music lovers and a whole lot of kids bonkers--kids like Jeff Beck, Eddie Cochran, George Harrison, and Jimmy Page. With its hyperdrive runs and primordial rock n' roll attitude, "How High the Moon" announced the future with the irreverence of Daffy Duck bursting through a boardroom full of dull executives and yelling, "All right you wise guys--get a load of this!"
But for all the Zip-pow-bam!
the song offered upon first listen, "How High the Moon" put all guitarists on notice that Les Paul was a man to be reckoned with on stage and in the studio. Les' success led to more hit records, and those hit records would go on to inspire generations of artists like Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Prince to use the studio as a place to compose music as well as record. Les and Mary's success foretold of a future where artists made their records at home or in unconventional spaces as well as the end of the union-dictated 3-hour recording session.
You might be surprised to hear that even though the signature "Les Paul"
solid body electric made its debut shortly after the release of "How High the Moon," Les himself preferred doing most of his recording at home with his Epiphone "Log," the Frankenstein hybrid of Epiphone and Gibson parts he assembled late at night at the Epiphone factory in New York in the 40s with Epi Stathopoulo's blessing. Les went on to make several "Log" guitars from Epiphone parts and they would remain his main guitars in the studio for all the big hits to follow.
It's difficult for young musicians working today to fully appreciate how revolutionary "How High the Moon" was at the time of its release in 1951. It would turn out to be only one of several revolutionary records made in the early 50s that still inspire musicians today. (Sam Phillips and Sun Records in Memphis and Chess Records in Chicago would have most of the others.) If Elvis Presley was the greatest cultural phenomenon of the decade, Les can take credit for the first truly modern pop record. It would be another 15 years until the release of The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" before pop music would hear anything as wild, unpredictable, and impossible to duplicate as "How High the Moon." So, just How High is
the Moon? Daddy-O, it's way, way up there.