Monday, August 17, 2009

Les Paul: Musician, Inventor, Brand

It might seem odd to think of people as brands - but we are. Every one of us is perceived by others as an individual with a specific history, reputation and persona, which adds up to who we are recognized as and what we stand for. Tom Peters, one of my business heroes, wrote about it, "The Brand Called You," in Fast Company - but that's a topic for another post.

This one is about the legendary Les Paul, whose brand stood for excellance and innovation, and who died last week at the age of 94. I was lucky enough to have seen him perform last March 23rd at the Iridium Jazz Club in Manhattan. The pictures here were taken by my friend, Phil Kann. Phil is a copywriter from the Bay Area who's worked in NY advertising for several years.

Les Paul seemed to have a clear picture of how to become a brand, and he talked about it during his show. He was a talented and versatile guitar player - but that's not enough in the age of the individual. Someone once told him that, while playing in a band, his playing wasn't loud enough. So he spent several years developing the solid-body electric guitar. You can buy one at most stores that sell guitars, it's the Les Paul model made by Gibson, the instrument that changed the sound of music in the last half of the 20th century.

He told a story about how he used to record while on the road. He, his wife Mary Ford - the vocalist for most of his hit records - and the trio would set up and tape in any room that had interesting acoustics.

Suddenly his bass player wanted to go back to college to study physics but, Les said, he was a damn good bass player. So he fooled around with a second recording head and - viola! - multi track recording was born. Les shipped the tapes "home" so the bassman could add his part while still being a physics student.

The night we were at the show, he pulled a guy out of the audience and made him take the stage. "This man," said Les, "taught me how to make Lego robots." Turns out the man is an engineer at IBM and he travels to schools and teaches kids how to make robots, intending to get them interested in computer science. Les Paul invited him over to his house and took a robot-making lesson.

How well did Les do? "I've had a lot of bright students," said Mr. Lego Robot, "but that old guy behind the guitar is the brightest one yet."

How did "Les Paul" become a "brand" in the music world (and beyond)? Simple. He was always ahead of most everybody else and always working on a problem that needed solving. He once said, "I just do these things because there's nobody else to do them." He chose his route carefully and followed it. Most of all, he stood for something.

Here's the obituary in last Thursday's New York Times [free with registration]. Scroll down for a real treat, a video of Les Paul telling his own story.