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At 90, guitarist Les Paul still strumming along

The man credited as the father of popular music says his secret to longevity is constantly working at his craft, being challenged.
/ Source: TODAY

Les Paul has made his name as a performer, an inventor, and thanks to the guitar that bears his signature, a household name. So you would think that now that he is turning 90, Paul might consider slowing down a bit but it’s quite the opposite. “Today” national correspondent Jamie Gangel caught up with the man who is credited as the father of popular music.

In the music world, Les Paul is an icon and genius. But if you ask the man himself, he'll modestly tell you he's spent his life just, "chasing sound." On Monday nights you’ll find him playing to a packed house at New York City’s Iridium Jazz Club to fans of all ages.

Jamie Gangel: What's the best thing about still performing?

Les Paul: It's the friends that I make the enjoyment of having people laugh [and] the applause. There's ego involved … you want to perform. You want them to like you … and you work at it. You work at it.

Gangel: After all of this time performing with all of the accolades, with all of the fame, you still worry about it.

Paul:  You want … to be loved.

And no question he is. The secret to his success Les Paul says is hard work and constantly being challenged.

Paul: I work with young musicians. They're all much younger than I am.

Gangel: And, you like that because?

Paul: I love that because they make me work. And, they play. I get the finest players that I can find. And, I put them right aside of me. And, I say, “Beat me up. Go for it.”

Gangel: Beat me up. [Laughter]

Paul:  "Go for it.  Go for it.  Go for it." And that keeps me going.

Determination has been key to Paul’s success. What many don't know is that Les Paul has had serious health problems throughout his life. In fact it's a miracle he's still alive, let alone bringing down the house.

Gangel: A car crash left you in the hospital for two years. Your arm so smashed that they had to set it?

Paul: Yeah. They set it right there. [Paul motions to arm]

Gangel: I guess you told them to set it like you're playing the guitar.

Paul: Just right here. [Paul motions to arm]

Gangel: Both your eardrums were broken.

Paul: Broken.

Gangel: You've had a stroke … arthritis.

Paul: Arthritis.

Gangel: You have … how many fingers do you play with now?Paul: None … I can't bend them. They won't bend.And you know what? All you got to do is play one note. If it's the right note, you're home. 

Clearly, music was his destiny. Growing up in Wisconsin, by 8 he was playing the harmonica, by 12 the guitar and by 17 he had dropped out of high school and was making a living as a professional musician.

First he had his own trio then became a household name with his wife and partner Mary Ford. They were so popular their daily TV show was on every major network.

Les Paul found himself a guitar legend.

A legend himself, blues guitarist B.B. King says, “I’d give my soul if I could play like him. Give my whole soul, everything to be …oh god!”

At the same time, he was always tinkering. Obsessed by sound, it earned him a nickname:

Paul: By now they're calling me, "hum, hiss Paul."

Gangel: Because?

Paul: Because I want no hum. I don't want no hiss. I want perfection. [Laughter]  We all do. But we don't make a big thing out of it.  But I did.

Along the way, he’s credited with dozens of inventions that revolutionized music. What would Jimi Hendrix have sounded like without “reverb?”

And what would The Beatles have done without multi tracking?

And then of course, Les Paul is responsible for a signature solid body guitar made by Gibson. It quickly became every teenager's dream and every parent's nightmare.

Gangel: Many of the people who come to hear you either had a Les Paul … or wanted one. Or, they had a teenager who played it way too loud.

Paul: Yeah. That's the parents.

Gangel: That's the parents.

Paul: That Les Paul guitar has got to go. [Laughs]

Gangel: And, I read that you always apologize to them.

Paul: I apologize to the parents but not to the kid that's playing the guitar.  I am so happy that he — he sees what I saw in the guitar. 

And so did many professionals. Les Paul's fans are a veritable who's who of rock and roll.

Rock legend Peter Frampton says, “My sound has developed and my style has developed because of playing a Les Paul. It’s the guitar that has the muscle for me.”

Former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page says, "Les's sound is ... it's just unmistakable. You hear it once and you could always recognize Les Paul after that.”

But while Les Paul is proud of all of his accomplishments his first love is still performing. And in the end he hopes his legacy is simple. That people remember him as just a plain old guitar player.

Paul says, “That's good enough for me. Yeah, I just do the best I can.”

He's a living legend and remarkably, he has not stopped inventing — in the works are a Les Paul piano, a new digital Les Paul Gibson guitar and perhaps no surprise for an audiophile, he is working on perfecting the hearing aid, he uses two of them, and wants to make sure everyone can hear the sounds he loves, even better.