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Les Paul's Legend Well-Served In Documentary

Of the Oakland Press

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Les Paul is an epic character in the music world whose accomplishments could easily render any telling of his story superficial.

If Paul — born Lester Polfuss in Waukesha, Wis. — were just a performer, producer and composer, on his own and with his late wife Mary Ford, perhaps his tale would be more manageable. But he’s also an innovator, not just with his technique but also with the equipment he’s used, with a resume that includes solid body electric guitars, amplifiers and sound-on-sound record. He resides comfortably in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Over the course of 85 minutes, “Les Paul: Chasing Sound!,” a new episode of PBS’ “American Masters” series airing tonight, does a yeoman’s job of reviewing Paul’s career without missing any of his achievements or — as so many other salutes have done — focus on the inventions at the expense of his musicality.

It helps considerably that Paul, at 92, is still around — winning Grammy Awards as recently as 2005 — to be an active part of the documentary. “Chasing Sound!” features him liberally spinning memories in his humble, loquacious manner and, most importantly, playing his regular Monday night gig at New York City’s Iridium, with guests such as Steve Miller and Tommy Emmanuel sitting in.

Starting with a youth as “a curious, rotten little kid,” Paul’s the rightful star of his own story, and his detailed anecdotes — such as charming more than one bandleader or record company executive into letting him audition after they’d already demurred — and explanations of his craft in the crammed workshop at his New Jersey home make “Chasing Sound!” more vivid than a bunch of talking heads.

There are those, of course. Musicians such as Miller, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards offer tributes, while an assortment of record producers and scholars weigh in to put Paul in perspective. But few are as charming or enlightening as Paul himself, or as Fred Rosenmekel, who played with Paul back in the 1930s in Wisconsin.

Compact but conscientious, “Chasing Sound!” is an illustrative documentary that does great justice to a genuinely great artistic story.

“American Masters — Les Paul: Chasing Sound!” debuts at 9 Wednesday (July 11th) on WTVS-Channel 56.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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