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Classic Tracks: Les Paul & Mary Ford 'How High The Moon'

Producer & Engineer: Les Paul By Richard Buskin
Published January 2007

CLASSIC TRACKS: Les Paul & Mary Ford 'How High The Moon'

Les Paul made some of the most innovative records of the 20th Century, but he had to invent multitrack tape recording first...

"I knew from the beginning that there was a great marriage between electronics and music," says Les Paul. "I'd play my guitar and my mother or my brother would tell me how good it sounded, but I wanted to hear it, and the only way that could happen was if I could hear it played back. So I built a crank phonograph and turned it into a recording device like Edison had — without even knowing who Edison was. The electronics were all in my living room. In addition to the phonograph I had a player piano, a telephone and a radio. I took the telephone apart at the receiver end, and when I looked at it I figured that the two coils were humbucking and quickly understood what the receiver was doing. Then I looked at the mouthpiece and worked out what that was doing. It was all right there in the living room. I never had to leave it — and I didn't!"

A longstanding member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as well as an inductee into the Inventors' Hall of Fame (alongside such esteemed company as Benjamin Franklin, the Wright Brothers and Alexander Graham Bell), Les Paul is one of the authors of modern music; a man who was at the forefront of guitar amplification, pioneered the technology of multitrack recording, and who, at the age of 91, still performs weekly sell-out gigs at New York's Iridium Jazz Club — playing the electric guitars that have carried his name since he first invented them in the 1940s and teamed with Gibson to perfect and manufacture them in the 1950s.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Les Paul & Mary Ford 'How High The Moon'Born Lester Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915 — his mother would later change the family name to Paul — Les was dimantling radios and telephones at the age of seven, and by the time he was 13 he was performing cowboy songs in local venues, billing himself as Red Hot Red. The telephone and radio were used to fashion a PA system, and his guitar was amplified by wedging a Victrola needle under the strings and plugging the instrument into another radio as well as the remains of the phone. Eventually, Red Hot Red evolved into Rhubarb Red, and the penchant for country material was superseded by a love of jazz that led him to Chicago in the mid-1930s, where he performed as Les Paul.

Les's first two records were released in 1936 — one under the Rhubarb Red moniker and the second as part of the backing band for Georgia White.

After forming a trio with rhythm guitarist Jimmy Atkins and bass player Ernie Newton, Les relocated to New York and joined Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, while gaining widespread exposure via the radio and even performing at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Moving to Los Angeles in 1943, he formed a new trio and was soon accompanying Bing Crosby on radio and record, topping the charts with 'It's Been a Long, Long Time'. There were also assignments with such major artists as Judy Garland and the Andrews Sisters, and while he and his Trio had a string of discs issued by Decca between 1944 and 1947 Les also found the time to immerse himself in technological innovations that would forever change the face of recording.

The Wax Factor

It was in 1947 that, having enjoyed chart success working with artists such as Bing Crosby, Dick Haymes and the Andrews Sisters, Les Paul recorded 'Lover (When You're Near Me)' in his home studio, featuring eight multitracked, multi-speed guitar parts, and talked Capitol into releasing it as a single in 1948. That year, following a near-fatal car crash, doctors avoided amputating Les's right arm by setting it at a permanent right-angle so that he could still play the guitar, and thereafter he teamed up with singer-guitarist Colleen Summers, who adopted the stage name that he dreamed up for her: Mary Ford.

Marrying in 1949, the pair subsequently had a string of multi-layered, effects-enhanced chart hits that were ostensibly recorded for their NBC radio show and then released by Capitol. These included 'How High the Moon' (1951), 'The World is Waiting for the Sunrise' (1951), 'Mockin' Bird Hill' (1951), 'Tiger Rag' (1952), 'Bye Bye Blues' (1952) and 'Vaya Con Dios' (1953), all committed to tape in Les's basic yet state-of-the-art home setup, after he'd spent four years managing to achieve sound on sound via wax discs.

"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." He recalls. "However, that was a rather difficult way of doing things, and the sound on sound also became a little tricky because of the degeneration that took place. 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.

"The important thing was the first part of a vocal or the first part of a guitar solo, so we'd plan things out and what went down would not be in a logical order like it would today when you lay down the rhythm tracks, the melody, the harmony. We didn't do it that way at all. And that was one of the key secrets as to why the balances came out right. When you listen to those old recordings you might say, 'My goodness, how in the world did they know how loud to make the bass and how loud to make the second part or the third part? How could they get everything that exact?' Well, that was because we'd lay down the least important parts first and then work our way through the recording until the parts that we'd want to hear the clearest and cleanest went on last. It was a very unusual way of recording, but that's what we had to do.

"What made me particularly proud of those wax machines was that they were made with Cadillac flywheels. My dad had a garage, and one day I was there, asking for something 16 inches in diameter that was balanced and would hold a round disc. The mechanic came out from underneath a car and he said, 'You know what's dynamically balanced and would fit the bill? A flywheel. There are a couple of cars out in the alley — why don't you do a hysterectomy on one of them?' So, we did. We took the flywheel out of a Cadillac, and the other part we needed came from my drummer who was a dentist. One time, he was cleaning my teeth and I saw all these dental belts, so I asked where he got them and I ordered some because they were endless belts and they were perfect for isolating the flywheel, the turntable and the recording device from any vibrations in the motor or even from trucks driving by outside."

Inventing 'Sound On Sound' Recording

It was in 1946 that Les Paul saw a tape machine for the first time — invented by the Germans and rescued from recently-liberated Luxembourg by a group of US Army officers. Familiar with wire recorders, Les had no idea about the AEG Magnetophon that made use of plastic-based magnetic tapes.

"Judy Garland and I flew from LA to New York to do the Paul Whiteman Show," he recalls, "and at the rehearsal this fellow kept trying to get my attention. Finally, I walked over to him and he told me that his name was Colonel Dick Ranger and that he had a tape machine that Sherman Fairchild — the founder of Fairchild Aviation, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, and Fairchild Recording — thought I should see. Well, Judy and I got into a car with Colonel Ranger and went to see this device, and then I called Bing Crosby out on the coast and told him about it. It turned out that one of the fellas working for him, Jack Mullins, had been in the same signal corps as Colonel Ranger, and he also had a tape machine, but he'd left it in pieces in his garage. So he dug out the pieces and took them to Ampex, and Ampex bought them right there on the spot. Colonel Ranger already had the assembled machine but he was not a good businessman, so it was Jack Mullins who made the very first tape machine for Ampex, which was the 200. The rest is history.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Les Paul & Mary Ford 'How High The Moon'"In 1949, Bing Crosby brought an Ampex 300 over to my house in LA, where I was then living. He asked me to go out into the front yard and help him get it out of his trunk, and then once I did that and the machine was indoors he said, 'Well, have fun,' and left. So, there I was, busy recording to disc, and I looked at the machine and all of a sudden the light went on — what if I put a fourth head on this machine? I took a piece of paper and a pencil, I drew it out, and I went to Mary and I said, 'Forget hanging up the laundry, forget the whole thing. Lock the place up, we're leaving. I've just found a way to record without needing the garage or a recording studio. I can do the whole thing anywhere that we wish to record.' All I needed was a fourth head on that mono 300 deck."

Which, as we now know, was perfectly logical. But was Les sure at the time that this would work?

"Oh yes, I knew," comes the reply, "but Mary didn't. We drove from LA to open up in Chicago at the Blue Note, the machine was in the truck of our car, and when we got to New Mexico she said, 'What if it won't work? You haven't tried it yet.' I said, 'Oh, it'll work,' but as we kept driving she'd say, 'Well, you didn't make a prototype. This thing may not work.' The closer we got to Chicago, the more concerned I became about the fact that I hadn't made a prototype. Without that I couldn't be absolutely positive it would work. However, I'd called Ampex before we left California and told them I needed another head that they should send to Chicago, and when we arrived in Chicago and went to the New Lawrence Hotel the head was waiting for me. So, I got a guy to drill a hole in the machine for me and we mounted the fourth head, and then I turned the machine on, Mary said, 'One, two, three, four, testing,' and I said, 'Howdy, howdy, howdy,' and my God it came back.

"At that time I was still walking with crutches following our automobile accident, and I threw my crutches in the air and we danced around in the hallway. Then we got in the elevator and went to work, and that was a big day. After that we'd record 'How High the Moon', 'The World is Waiting for the Sunrise'... in fact, at least 90 percent of our recordings were made on that [Ampex 300] device, not on the eight-track."

Let's Push Some Boundaries...

Les Paul and Mary Ford's version of 'How High the Moon', which topped the Billboard singles chart for nine weeks in the spring and early summer of 1951 (while also hitting number one on the R&B chart, something which no white act had done before), was a true wake-up call for many of today's veteran engineers; a multi-layered, souped-up recording that highlighted not only the jazz guitarist's quick-fingered virtuosity, but also, thanks to his technological and innovative brilliance with recording, the creative possibilities that lay beyond merely capturing a straightforward live performance. As multi-Grammy-winning engineer Bruce Swedien once told me:

Les Paul at work in his home studio.Les Paul at work in his home studio."The first time I really got excited about pop music was when I discovered that it was possible to use my imagination. That had come with a record that I myself didn't work on, Les Paul and Mary Ford's 'How High the Moon', in 1951. Up to that point the goal of music recording had been to capture an unaltered acoustic event, reproducing the music of big bands as if you were in the best seat in the house. It left no room for imagination, but when I heard 'How High the Moon', which did not have one natural sound in it, I thought, 'Damn, there's hope!'"

'How High the Moon' was recorded in Les Paul's home studio in Jackson Heights, using just the Ampex 300, a power supply unit, a small home-made mixer, a Bell & Howe amplifier, a Lansing Manufacturing Iconic speaker, and a single RCA 44BX ribbon mic.

"We had to fold the Murphy bed into the wall in order to put the machinery in there," he recalls. "My buddy Wally Jones built the mixer. This had a channel for Mary to sing on and one for me to play the guitar, and there was no VU meter. With anything that we recorded there was never a VU meter and there were also no equalisers. I was flying absolutely blind. I went by my ear, wearing a pair of Armed Forces headphones that I think were in the range of 5Hz to 50kHz, and I'd just bring the level down a little bit if there was any distortion."

The VU meters that appear in photos of this setup were added later.

"One of the things that intrigued the guys at Capitol was how the needle always looked like it was standing still," Les continues. "One day, the president of the company stopped me and said, 'Hey, we've finally figured out what to do. We've built a limiter-compressor, and with this we now are able to do what you do.'

"In my case, I was so used to playing that, even without a meter, if I was going to hit a note I'd know that by hitting it here on the string it wouldn't record as loud as if I hit it there. And it was the same with Mary's vocals. She'd got to the point where no one had to tell her to back up on this note, move forward on that one, move sideways, or watch out for sibilance. We'd been doing it a long time and we were professionals."

"I had only one machine and, by the time we finished, the spliced tapes might be 6dB off and of a different bias. So, I'd press the record button and at that point the tape would go through and I'd be riding the gain to make everything the right level."

The Birth Of Eight-track

Eight-track came along a short time after 'How High The Moon'; conceived in 1953 when Les and Mary were living in Jackson Heights, a neighbourhood of Queens, New York, and operational by 1956. Originally, he presented his idea to Westrex in LA, and after this and another company rejected it he found more receptive ears at Ampex in San Francisco.

"We had a meeting, which was attended by everybody in the place, and they were terribly excited about it," Les recalls. "They said, 'It can be done. It means we're going to have to develop a staff of people and go to work on this thing, but we will make you a multitrack machine.'"

Which they did, developing 'Sel-Sync' (Selective Synchronous Recording) while the resultant unit was twice flown back to San Francisco to correct problems that Les unearthed at his home in Jackson Heights.

"For one thing, they didn't have a master bias oscillator," he explains. "They had eight individual oscillators controlling each track —there were eight tape recorders, eight sets of electronics, each self-powered with their own biasing, and of course they would conflict with each other. One master oscillator was the way to go, so we did that. Then the second error they made was to make the machine 30/60 [ips] instead of 15/30, so all the EQs were wrong, both on the recording side and on the playback side, and they therefore had to redo that. There were also two or three other minor errors that they had to correct, and after quite a while of going back and forth and debugging the system we basically changed it almost completely from what it originally was going to be.

"We built the board at the same time, we got the remotes in so that all the controls were right on there, and that board, which did everything that I wished it to do, was married to the eight-track. The board we called the Monster and the eight-track we called the Octopus. I still have that all-tube board — it hasn't gone to the museum yet — which was just about as modern as you could get, with inbuilt EQ, vibro, filters, you name it, and a great, warm, sound. People would fight for it today.

"At the same time as all that was being developed, across the hallway [in their San Francisco facility] Ampex was working on colour video picture — I could walk over there and talk to Ray Dolby and the guys working on the video, and then walk back to the room where we were doing the audio. Both those things would make history and change the world, but at the time I had no idea we were going to change anything. All I knew was that I had a machine with tape delay on it, the ability to change speeds and fidelity that was good. It was just a blessing."

The Secret Jury

'How High the Moon' was not a new song when Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded it. Written by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis, this jazz standard had been covered numerous times before Paul and Ford committed it to tape on January 4th, 1951. And even then, the guitarist gave it multiple concert outings before settling on the right arrangement.

CLASSIC TRACKS: Les Paul & Mary Ford 'How High The Moon'"After we discovered that the sound on sound was working, that night we went to work at the Blue Note," he says. "And after a couple of weeks there, I told Mary, 'There's something bothering me. If you listen when we play 'How High the Moon' on Monday, the crowd just goes crazy. Tuesday is almost as good as Monday, but by Wednesday we've got a problem. By Thursday and Friday it's worse, and by Saturday it's almost forget it. Then Sunday is pretty good, and again Monday is a great one. The reaction should be the same no matter what night it is, so we're playing 'How High the Moon' wrong. We're playing it for professional people who are off on Monday; bartenders, maitre d's, musicians, and they want to hear it the way we play it. But on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday we've got people who want to get away from the kids; blue-collar guys who are far removed from musicians and professionals.'

"So, when we next moved on to places like Rockford, Illinois, and Omaha, Nebraska, we kept trying 'How High the Moon' each night in three different ways until I was pretty sure that I'd found the arrangement that went down great every night of the week.

"It was very unusual to do this, but when the guys over at Capitol asked, 'What in the world makes you think that this record is going to make it?' I said, 'Because I've put it to the test and my jury says this is the way it should be.' And after we made it, the jury bought it right away. This was what we did with all our hit records — I would make sure that there was a jury of people who could tell me if something was good or not. However, I never told them they were part of a jury or that I'd like their opinions. I'd just watch their reactions."

Tape Delay

"Right from the start I wanted to get different sounds and I wanted to get different effects. The first thing that hit me was that if I played a note and I played an octave higher than that, playing the two notes together — even three octaves apart — it created big sounds and different sounds, making the whole thing very special because it had never been heard before. It was a new kind of music, and that turned me on, as well as people like Artie Shaw and WC Fields who'd come to my place and be amazed by what they heard. I was out to find a sound that was different to anything else on the planet.

"In terms of effects, for delay I had a phonograph pickup behind the record head. It took me about three years to figure that out — every Friday night this guy Lloyd and I would sit in a saloon and watch the fights on TV, and one time he asked me to explain what I was after in terms of echo, and when I said like a guy shouting 'Hello' in the Alps and hearing it come back to him multiple times, he said, 'You mean, like if you put a playback head behind the record head?' Oh my God, we were out of that saloon so fast. We left the girls there with 10 dollars to pay for the beer, we forgot all about the fights and we were on our way home. It took us 10 minutes to get there, and we had that thing up and running in no time at all. We quickly realised that by moving the playback head forwards or backwards we could also change the delay — the whole neighbourhood could hear 'Hello... hello... hello...'"

Take Three...

Still, for all the pre-production on 'How High the Moon', to begin with there were actually two — count 'em — failed attempts to get the right results on tape...

A publicity photo of Les and Mary from around the time of 'How High The Moon'.A publicity photo of Les and Mary from around the time of 'How High The Moon'."We were located right across from a firehouse," Les explains, "and our first attempt was ruined when the siren went off. Then some planes came overhead on their way to La Guardia Airport and ruined the second one. At that point Mary began crying and saying, 'I don't know if I can do it again,' and just when she decided she could, the guy who lived above us went to the bathroom. He must have weighed about 400 pounds, so we had to wait and wait while he took a leak and went to bed before we could go for it. You see, we'd record at night, and that kept the people upstairs awake. Mary would put a blanket over herself to isolate the sound — the guitar wasn't a problem since it went straight into the earphones — but in this case those folks complained because they could hear her singing the fourth part, which had a lot of high and strange stuff. Still, in the end we got it done.

"The first thing that was recorded was me just rapping on the guitar. I turned the volume up and hit the strings, no chords — that was the rhythm and it set the tempo. Then the second thing that went down was just chords. This went on and on and on as I built it up, part after part, take after take. The lead vocal and my guitar went on second to last, and the last thing that went on was the bass, played on the last string on my guitar. Everything was done on that guitar — I never left it from the beginning to the end except to lay down under the tape machine and change motors or change capstans. It felt like I was under that machine much more than I was on top."

The Les Paulverizer

"When we did the radio show for NBC I had a problem. I was doing everything; I produced, I directed, I wrote the script, I acted and I played. In the script I tried to explain how I'd take Mary's voice and multiply it, but it was all so technical. Then I came up with the idea of my magic box, the Les Paulverizer, which did everything for me, and this worked and it became very popular among listeners. It became part of the show, with me saying things like, 'Mary, you sing this song and the Les Paulverizer will multiply you into 12.' It was a lot easier than going into all the technical detail.

"Then, when we were appearing on the 'Ed Sullivan Show', he said, 'Where are the rest of the people?' We said, 'There's only two of us,' and he said, 'Well, I want to hear what I heard on the record.' I said, 'That's all done with my invention, the Les Paulverizer.' However, wherever we performed, people kept asking the same thing, so what I did was sit down and build a box that I called the Les Paulverizer. This sat on my guitar and it started and stopped the tape machines, rewound them, recorded, added the echo and did everything right there on the stage. Well, I finished making it on a Friday, and Friday night Vice President Richard Nixon called and informed me that we'd be performing for President Eisenhower in Washington that Sunday night.

"When I told Mary we were going to use the Les Paulverizer, she said, 'I'm not going on the stage with this thing! It's never been tried.' I said, 'It'll work...' The tape machine would be hidden behind a curtain, so everyone would still think the Paulverizer was this magic box. Well, we went down to Washington, and there we were, performing for Eisenhower, Nixon and all the bigwigs, and through the first five songs everything went great. Then Nixon leapt up, put his arms around me and said, 'Maybe the President has a favourite song. Why don't you ask him?' I said, 'That's a great idea.' I could have killed Nixon.

"I said, 'Mr President, Vice President Nixon came up with an idea here — I'd like to ask if you have a favourite song that Mary and I can play for you.' I was thinking, 'Oh my God, what are we going to do?' because we really had to play the next number on the tape. Anyway, Eisenhower couldn't think of a favourite song, so he asked Mamie and she said, 'Well, when we were leaving Denver and you got pains in your chest, we pulled over to the side of the road and I turned the radio on and we heard 'Vaya Con Dios'...' So help me God, that was the next number on the tape!

"I still have the letter that Richard Nixon sent me, describing how Eisenhower had stopped him down in the tunnels beneath the White House and said, 'You know, that Les Paul is bothering me. I still can't figure out the Les Paulverizer.' I've also got a letter that Eisenhower wrote to Pat Nixon, saying, 'I'll never figure out how that guy could do what he did. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen.' And of course it was amazing. If it hadn't been for Mamie picking that song, we'd have been dead. It's just lucky that Nixon didn't suggest they ask for a second song..."

Just Press The Button & Go

"In all, there were 12 guitar parts and 12 voices, and a total of about 24 takes before the result was sent to NBC and then on to Capitol", explains Les. "Everything was laid out like we were doing a stage show, and by the time Mary and I were ready to go we pretty well knew what we were going to do; not lick for lick, not note for note, but just in terms of the sections. Within each section we knew we could do anything we wished — four parts, eight parts, 12 parts, whatever — and while Mary was singing her part I'd lay my part down at the same time."

At 91 Les Paul is still playing sell-out weekly gigs at the Iridium, New York.At 91 Les Paul is still playing sell-out weekly gigs at the Iridium, New York.And how long did it take to achieve all this?

"I would say less than an hour. You see, I was so into it and so free, having played so much, that I'd just press the button and go. And Mary was absolutely super. I'd tell her what I wanted and that's what she'd put down. If I wanted her to sing a three-part harmony or whatever, that's the way it was done. What's more, it would take a stick of dynamite to change her, because once she'd got it, that was it, and she didn't have to rehearse or anything. It was the same with me. I knew what I was doing, and so as fast as I could rewind that tape we were ready to lay the next parts down.

"I remember running into George Benson and him telling me that he was just finishing up an album. When I asked how long he'd been working on it, he said, 'Less than a year.' Less than a year? We would make an album while Mary was preparing dinner. She'd be making macaroni cheese, so I'd figure I had 45 minutes, and during that time I'd lay down all these parts, including the backgrounds for the whole album, and then I'd tell her where she had to come in, saying, 'Lay way back on this one. Make it real loose. Do a Bing.' She could do that and put feeling into it, and within no time at all everything was done."

Keep It Simple

Les Paul always made sure to make a master of his recordings that he'd hold onto, and, as is always the case with back-ups, it's fortunate that he did. A few years back, when he received a call from Capitol, informing him that the company's own tape of 'How High the Moon' had disintegrated irreparably, he was able to supply a backup that was as good as new.

"It just happened to be 3M tape," he says. "Back then, 3M tape was excellent, and when I took a listen to the original it sounded great. We'd used no limiters, no echo chambers, nothing. Just tape delay, which I cranked up only when the number was done. There was nothing on one track that didn't appear on another track; it was on everything. The mistake made today is like when you go into a club and hear the piano with echo while the guitar right next to it is dry. How does that sound out in the audience? It sounds weird. If you do it the right way you put a little bit on everything, and if it's noticeable it's too much. That's why my advice is use it, don't abuse it. With so much to play with it's easy to go too far. Simplicity is the answer."