Sixty-six years ago this week in 1951, everything turned around for Epi's favorite mad scientist and electric Godfather Les Paul
when his revolutionary remake of "How High the Moon" went to #1 on the Billboard
singles chart. Part pop, part jazz, part country, and all out-of-this-world, "How High the Moon" featured dozens of rocket powered guitar parts and wife Mary Ford's supersonic harmonies. Les recorded each guitar part one at a time, stacking rhythm, leads, and harmony lines before adding at least a dozen more takes of Mary's singing. This was accomplished by recording back and forth between two customized Ampex 300 tape machines (soon to be replaced with his own customized 8-track).
Les had first used this ingenious method to make his first charting single for Capitol Records, "Lover," in 1948 using two cutting lathes powered by Cadillac flywheels in his garage in Hollywood. The results were magnificent, weird, and instantly memorable. More singles followed featuring Les' new wife Mary Ford on vocals as Les began experimenting with the first commercial version of the Ampex magnetic tape recorder (a gift from pal Bing Crosby, an early investor in Ampex). "How High the Moon" was the culmination of Les' long desire (inspired by a critique from his Mom) to make something different
, to make technology part of the performance. "How High the Moon"--a nearly decade old pop standard--was the most unlikely of songs to start a sonic revolution. But Les was right. Clearly, it wasn't the song that was the hit, it was the sound
"How High the Moon" was in essence one long guitar solo and it drove music lovers and a whole lot of kids bonkers. And when we say "kids," we mean kids like Jeff Beck, George Harrison, and Jimmy Page. With its Django-inspired 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 a first listen, Les Paul was a serious musician and the song was a serious endeavor. Les' success led to more hit records, and those hit records would go on to inspire generations of artists including The Beatles, Prince, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and many others use the recording studio both as an instrument or a muse.
You might be surprised to hear that even though the "Les Paul"
solid body electric guitar made its debut shortly "How High the Moon," Les himself preferred recording with his Epiphone "Log," the Frankenstein-ish 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, all of them from Epiphone parts, and they would remain his main guitars in the studio for all the big hits to follow.
It would be a stretch for most young musicians working today to really appreciate how revolutionary "How High the Moon" was at the time. Today, there are no limits to the amount of tracks one can use in the studio. And "How High the Moon" would turn out to be only one of the many revolutionary records of the 50s (Sam Phillips and Sun Records would have most of the others). But if Elvis Presley was the greatest cultural phenomenon of the 50s, Les can take the credit for the first truly modern hit record. It would another 15 years with the release of The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and The Beatles "Strawberry Fields Forever" before pop music would hear something as wild, unpredictable, and impossible to duplicate live. Although to Les' credit, he was able to reproduce "How High the Moon" in concert thanks to Mary's sister Carol secretly singing harmony behind the curtain along with the Les Paul Paulverizer. So just How High is the Moon? Daddy-O, it's way, way up there.