Les Paul passed away a few days ago at the age of 94. His inventiveness with the solid state electric guitar and his cutting edge studio techniques — especially with the process of overdubbing — helped to shape rock ‘n’ roll as we know it.
Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford became stars back in the days of 78 rpm records and early 45’s, placing close to forty songs on the American charts including two of the biggest hits of the time period. “How High The Moon” was number one for nine weeks in 1951 and “Vaya Con Dios” for eleven weeks in 1953. Following their divorce in 1962, he went on to a long and storied career, performing live right up until his death.
My vinyl collection of Les Paul is embarrassingly small but tucked away in the Chet Atkins section is not only one the best albums Paul ever helped to create, but also one of the best guitar albums to ever grace vinyl.
Chet Atkins, a country guitar legend in his own right, coaxed Paul out of semi-retirement in 1975 to record Chester and Lester. It would win a Grammy Award as best country instrumental album of 1976 and it became a commercial success, which they followed up with Guitar Monsters a year later.
Chester and Lester catches both men at the height of their powers. It has a live feel to it as most of the tracks were recorded in one take. It is also a relaxed and easygoing affair as some of the in-studio banter was left in the mix.
The sound is a fusion of country meets light jazz. The two guitars backed by a basic rhythm section and piano seem to almost converse with each other. Make no mistake, however, that while there is a friendly competition, both men try to outshine the other.
For the most part, the songs tend to be early standards. Sammy Cahn’s “It’s Been A Long, Long Time,” Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” Buddy DeSylva’s “The Birth Of The Blues,” and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Lover, Come Back To Me” are bent, twisted, improvised upon and ultimately returned to normal.
This album is Les Paul at his best, just playing the guitar and seemingly having a good time. His expertise is readily apparent as he holds his own against one of the few guitarists that could be considered his equal. The tone of the sounds that he could coax from his instrument and his picking technique remain unique.
I consider Chester and Lester to be a shining moment in the long career of Les Paul. If you are a fan of his or of Chet Atkins — or you simply appreciate guitar playing at the highest level — then this album is for you. Chester and Lester are both gone now but the music remains. Enjoy!