Posts Tagged ‘Les Paul’


Friday, August 14th, 2009

The last couple of weeks have seen the passing of two people who one way or another have had quite an influence on me. The most recent was yesterday – guitar legend Les Paul. He was a truly multi-talented man – a gifted musician, who influenced many others, including Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney and Neil Young. And it was his constant quest for perfection that led him to develop the idea of multi-track recording, enabling artists to sing harmony with themselves, but also for musicians to record individual tracks at different times, and ensure each was perfect before it was all mixed into a master track. But he will be best remembered for designing the guitar which bears his name, the Gibson Les Paul.

This was the first solid body electric guitar, and over 50 years on, it’s still in production. Of course there are many star guitarists famous for using Gibson Les Pauls – Pete Townshend (The Who), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Slash (Guns n’ Roses), Joe Perry (Aerosmith). And while most tend to associate the Fender Stratocaster with him, even Jimi Hendrix played a Les Paul Custom. From my point of view, there isn’t a band I’ve played in over the last 35 years where at least one guitarist hasn’t played a Gibson Les Paul. It has a beautiful singing sustain that other guitars struggle to match.

The other man is Christopher Portway, a travel writer whom I met on a winter snowmobiling trip to Finland 20 years ago. He rather liked the fact that I had a penchant for doing more adventurous things, and we hit it off straight away, although it must be said I nearly killed him on our first meeting when I accelerated our skidoo up to 90mph along a frozen lake, with Chris riding pillion and hanging on to me for dear life.

But Chris’s exploits make mine pale into insignificance. He fought in World War Two, and when at the age of 20 he was captured by the Germans in Normandy in 1944, he was sent to Poland to work as a slave labourer in a coal mine. He escaped from there, and attempted to get to the Russian front, jumping goods trains, and even at one point bumming a ride in the first class compartment on a passenger train. But he was caught by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, from where he took part in the infamous “Death March”. It was when he escaped again that he was taken in by a Czechoslovakian family, and fell in love with their 19 year-old daughter. He was captured once more, and escaped once more before the war ended.

He then spent the next few years trying to find Anna, and when he did, attempting to get her out from behind the Iron Curtain. After cutting his way through an electrified fence, he was arrested while crawling through a minefield. He was put on trial and sentenced to 104 years in prison, but was released four months later after Britain turned the affair into an international incident. Eventually Anna was allowed to emigrate to Britain, where they married, but when the Czech authorities then started to harass her family, he went back in to smuggle some of them out through Yugoslavia. If you’ve ever wondered why modern passports have a clear plastic lamination over the photograph – Chris is the reason!

Chris spent many years travelling and writing about the kind of places most people would avoid. He was arrested and interrogated in Idi Amin’s Uganda, he met Fidel Castro and Colonel Gaddafi amongst others, and he was friends with the exiled King of Albania. Even in his 70s he won a Churchill Travelling Fellowship Award to do a 2,000 mile cycle ride from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

He was one of the last great eccentrics – there was a delightful element of slight bumbling naïvety about the way Chris managed to get himself into (and out of) all kinds of scrapes. A typical example would be when he climbed to the summit of 20,561 foot Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador. No one told him he was supposed to wear mountaineering boots and crampons, and he did it in a pair of plimsolls. When on the descent he and his party became lost in a white-out, they huddled together in the snow thinking they were going to die, then had to move apart some while later when they started feeling too hot!