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Free Talk Live => General => Topic started by: Zat on August 16, 2009, 05:26:33 PM

Title: Recently deceased Les Paul...
Post by: Zat on August 16, 2009, 05:26:33 PM
...thinks that the greatest thing he had done was to operate a pirate radio station.

Road Warrior: Les Paul's legend was built by his own hands

When I learned of music legend Les Paul's death last week, I couldn't help but think of the time he built a bootleg radio station in Queens that drove traffic controllers at La Guardia Airport crazy for nearly four years.

"That was the greatest thing we ever did in our lives," the guitarist told me back in 1994.

His "greatest thing"? Ever?

Greater than the invention of the electric guitar, which changed the course of rock-and-roll? Greater than megahits like "Vaya Con Dios" and "How High the Moon," which he recorded in his Mahwah home studio with wife Mary Ford in the 1950s? Greater even than his ingenious studio techniques, like multitrack recording and reverb, which set technical standards that still stand?

Yup, yup and yup.

Paul was a "radio guy" a man who became captivated by broadcasting almost from the day he was born in 1915. But long before the medium would carry his genius to millions, radio was the nation's main connection to the twin passions of the late 1930s music and war.

"I built the station myself," he said. "It was illegal, but it was great. We had some of the best musicians and singers in the world perform there Artie Shaw, Fred Waring, Jo Stafford, the Pied Pipers, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey. "

It was an outrageous, unexpected response to a question for a piece I was writing about World War II broadcasting. I knew Paul from earlier interviews as a gifted storyteller and a genuine Jersey road warrior.

"We've paid for the Garden State Parkway 100 times over," he once fumed. "Why can't we have freeways like California? New Jersey must be stupid!"

Sure, I thought, he's good for a celebrity quote, but raconteurs often bend the truth. Why would big-name entertainers perform for free on a Jackson Heights station that was little more than a tiny transmitter hooked to a wire resembling a clothesline?

"It was in the basement of my apartment on Electra Court," Paul explained patiently. "A lot of musicians lived there. Others heard us on the air and just showed up. At first, it was just a place to rehearse."

Bandleader Bob Crosby, Bing's brother, was visiting friends one time when the elevator took him to the basement, where he found himself in his favorite radio station.

But why would a premier guitarist risk jail by running an illegal broadcast operation?

Wisconsin-born Lester Polsfuss was a pioneer a natural risk-taker. At 13, he invented his first rudimentary electric guitar using a cartridge and a stylus from a phonograph. At 33, he lost most of the mobility in his left arm in a car crash, so he told doctors to set it in a permanent guitar-playing position. During World War II, he found a way to beat gas rationing by mixing mothballs and turpentine. At 90, he was still performing in New York.

In 1941, the little station he loved almost killed him. "I stuck my hand in the transmitter and was nearly electrocuted," he said. "I couldn't play for a year."

Paul spent even more time in the basement studio. For 12 hours each Wednesday starting at 8 p.m. from 1938 to 1941, listeners from Queens to North Jersey heard the inventor and his friends jam live on the air. But the station offered more than pop music. As Hitler marched through Europe, Paul stuck pins in a huge map of the world so he and the announcer, Broadway actor Paul Douglas, could keep track of the fighting.

The operation was called BBBS for Booger Brothers Broadcasting System. My notes show that Gus' Deli and a local pizzeria were the only sponsors, but maybe that was a neighborhood joke.

Except for the musical star power, the format resembled that of latter-day college stations.

"If President Roosevelt gave a speech," he recalled, "we'd say something like, 'Now it's time to hear Fearless Frank the Ferocious Philosopher with a fireside chat.' Then we'd dial to another station to simulcast his speech."

By 1941, newspapers started writing about the little station. Soon a van with whirling antennas pulled up and three federal agents entered the basement.

"They said we were jamming communications at La Guardia Airport," Paul recalled.

His response: "It would be a shame to take us off the air. What can I do?"

Luckily, one agent was a fan. He and Paul concocted a radio "wave trap."

"It filtered out the harmonics so we no longer jammed La Guardia," he explained.

Unlike his other innovations, the inventor of reverb and multitracking isn't given formal credit for this sleight of hand, nor did he seek any. He pulled the plug on BBBS himself a few months later when he moved to the West Coast, where his trio became a mainstay on Bing Crosby's radio show for many years.

Despite a career that made him a music icon, the little station in Queens was a pivotal lifetime achievement, mainly because it transcended both artistry and invention.

"People enjoyed themselves while watching the war with us," he said. "And when musicians were playing on the East Coast, the station became their place to connect. Everybody was together back then."

Rest in peace, Les.

He lived not far from me at all, so a lot of articles and such the past few days.