Guitar legend Les Paul enthralled a hometown crowd Thursday night at a concert that raised more than $100,000 for an exhibit on his life.
The 91-year-old Grammy winner hadn’t played in Waukesha in decades. Even though he claimed earlier he’s never nervous before going on stage, he admitted “I was lying. I’m nervous tonight.”
Wearing a blue turtleneck and black slacks, Paul dazzled the crowd with his playing and with stories from his long career.
During his hour and a half concert, he joined his jazz trio in playing such tunes as “Tennessee Waltz,” “Lady Is a Tramp” and “Embraceable You” as the crowd paid rapt attention.
After “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Paul got emotional, telling the crowd it was his mother’s favorite song.
“You have no idea what it means to be back here,” he said.
At one point, he jokingly accused his piano player of missing a note but added that he’s missed his share, too.
“All the time I’ve been playing the guitar, the notes I missed, I say I’m saving them for the next album,” he cracked.
He recalled coming home from a gig after an audience member told him his guitar needed to be louder.
“I went home and I said to my mother, ‘I’ve got a critic and the critic has something to say. It’s up to me to do something about it. So I’ll make an electric guitar,’ ” he said.
The invention caught on and helped Paul and his wife at the time, Mary Ford, record a series of hit records in the 1950s. Guitar-maker Gibson began mass-producing the Les Paul model in 1952. Many rock musicians became famous playing on the model.
“Thank God the younger generation latched onto it and said ‘Look what we got here,’ ” he said.
Tickets for Paul’s performance Thursday ranged from $300 to $375. All 350 tickets were sold, with all the money going to the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum, which is raising money for the Les Paul exhibit. In March, Paul donated $25,000 to the museum.
Paul is also known for developing recording techniques such as close miking, multitracking and use of echo and delay. He’s credited with introducing the first eight-track tape player in 1950s and building an early model synthesizer.
He’s often called the “Wizard of Waukesha,” though he said he’s not sure where it came from.
“I didn’t create it. I don’t care ... but if the shoe fits,” he said with a laugh.
Paul, who lives in Mahwah, N.J., has donated many artifacts and memorabilia for the planned exhibit, a $3 million project expected to open in 2010.
Paul didn’t need much warm-up time Thursday. He has played twice every Monday night with his trio at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York since 1996.
He said he had one regret about the hometown concert — he wished some of his friends, who have since died, could have been around for it. Still, he was happy to come home.
“I think of the wonderful days I had and the people who taught me and who I grew up with,” he said.