Today, a seemingly immortal man proved to be mortal, after all.
When contemplating the loss and legacy of the music industry's biggest giant, my thoughts turned to Deke Dickerson, a master guitarist renowned for his passion for modern music's roots, and for his love of vintage guitars and recording gear.
From album to album, song to song, Dickerson presents a myriad of six-string stylings, but the ones that ring most sweetly to me are his most direct nods to Les Paul's classic, multi-tracked, reverbed signature (for example, "Rockin' Gypsy," from 2004's My Name is Deke).
Within moments of our afternoon conversation's beginning, my instinct to hear Dickerson's thoughts of Paul's passing proved to be the correct one. Rather than listen to someone pay lip service to an icon, I talked to a performer who was honestly mourning the loss of an inspiration and true hero.
SS: Les Paul was 94, after all, but today's news still must have been shock to you. A very sad day, indeed.
DD: I was in New York almost a month ago — I was backing up the Collins Kids and some other 50s rockabilly acts, and knew a a few weeks ahead of time that I had a few days off there. I was tryin' like hell to get out to New Jersey and interview Les — I had a bunch of questions that I don't think have ever been asked of him, questions that now will probably go forever unanswered.
It looked like it was going to happen, but about four days before we got to New York, Les went into the hospital. I said to the band at the time, this really sucks, as I don't know how many more opportunities I'll have to interview him, with our schedules and all. And, as it turns out, I don't think he left the hospital.
SS: I imagine you've seen Les play his New York gigs.
DD: I have, and I've also seen him a couple of times out here, at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. And I've been fortunate enough to talk to him a few times backstage, which was super-cool.
SS: He was one of the few people that can make any rock star — Slash, whomever — weak in the knees.
DD: The funniest thing about Les is that there's Les Paul the musician, the inventor, the recording pioneer... and then there's all these people who think of him as the signature on a guitar's headstock. I get the feeling that Slash and some other guys have never heard a Les Paul & Mary Ford record in their lives — it's the 'Les Paul' combined with 'Gibson' that gets them weak in the knees.
SS: What was one of the questions you had for Les?
DD: Well, it's very well-known that Les Paul pioneered all these recording techniques, like overdubbing, multi-tracking... he helped develop the first 8-track tape recorder for Ampex. But no one's really asked Les about how he came up with the concept of the direct guitar input.
You've got to understand, he came from doing a very typical thing — playing an arch top guitar in a big band — and within the space of a couple of years, he decided to plug his electric guitar directly into the input of the recording board. This was a fairly revolutionary idea; it was probably 20-25 years before people began really picking up on the stuff that Les was doing in the late 40s.
One thing that I find interesting is that in almost every other avenue of technology, we've taken these things that were invented in the 1940s and 1950s and improved them, surpassed them by leaps and bounds, or replaced them. But if you go down to Guitar Center and look at ninety-nine percent of the guitars on sale, they're pretty much using the same technology that Les Paul was using in the 1940s. And pretty much everyone agrees that most of those [guitars] suck compared to the old ones.
SS: The aspect of the 'Les Paul legend' that appeals to me most is that he had such a can-do, Rube Goldberg-type engineering spirit — an attitude you don't find often anymore. Didn't he fashion a recording head out of a Ford flywheel, or something like that?
DD: Well, it was more like a turntable... the first records were before recording tape, they were recording directly onto disc. Back then, you needed an extremely dense turntable so you wouldn't transfer the vibrations from the motor to the recording. Les figured he could use a Cadillac flywheel for that purpose. Now, they did have some expensive transcription recorders at that point in time, but he used something that cost a lot less money to do the same thing.
SS: When was the first time you heard a Les Paul record?
DD: My dad was sort of a record collector, and he got me into a lot of those types of records. I started playing guitar at age 13, and I was a typical teenage kid, into rock and heavy metal and all that stuff. When I first heard Les Paul and Mary Ford, I didn't really understand them, but I knew that they were significant and impressive enough that I needed to keep them until I could understand them. I had a few of the 10" records, and when I played them again when I was 20 or 21, I was really knocked out.
SS: Have you considered how modern music might have evolved without him?
DD: It's sort of hard to put into words what Les did, because he was like the first caveman to rub two sticks together and make fire. Now, one could assume that at some point another person would figure out how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together, but I think the music world would have come along much differently without him.
SS: I would have to guess another slew of Les Paul tributes are around the corner...
DD: When Les would play these gigs at the House of Blues, it would be billed as something like "Les Paul and Friends." It would be packed, because everyone knew that big rock stars would be showing up.
Les would start the show with his trio, and I'd be right up front, all excited — 'Wow, Les Paul is playing his songs with the trio!' — and I'd look behind me, and no in the audience gave a crap. They were just waiting for the rock stars to play. And when they came out, Les would just unplug and go backstage.
A while ago, I had the chance to buy a very cool Les Paul Black Beauty; I got Les to sign the pick guard. I later joked to some friends, 'I'm probably the first guy in 40 years to buy a Les Paul because he wanted to sound like Les Paul!'
SS: Perhaps you should round up some of your SoCal, old-school friends — oh, the Paladins, Billy Zoom, those sorts of performers — to record a tribute album.
DD: That would be nice. But I'm sure there will be the tributes by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, etc.... we'll have to wait for that to die down first.
Deke Dickerson's new CD, King of the Whole Wide World, is in stores now. A US tour — plus dates in Spain and Finland — continues on Aug. 14.