Walk into Fat Tuesday’s any Monday night and you’ll see and hear a legend–if
you’re lucky, maybe two or three.

For the past 11 years, Les Paul has played a regular two-show gig at the
Manhattan nightclub, drawing a steady stream of musical luminaries, from Tony
Beneath to Jimmy Page, who come to the east side club to sit in for awhile with
one of the fathers of the modern electric guitar.

For the past four years, Paul’s son, Lester G. Paul, Jr., better known as
Rusty, has captured each of those Monday night performances on videotape.
Father and son are working together, creating thousands of hours of new video,
and compiling hundreds of hours of historic footage, all of which they plan to
use in a film biography of Les Paul’s life.

Musician and Innovator
“I’m the audio guy,” says the senior Paul, 79. This is a colossal
understatement from the inventor of multitrack recording and the humbucking
guitar pickup. “I leave videoland to Russ. If I got into it, it would eat me
up. It’s like in the guitar world. A guy comes in Monday night and he’s got all
kinds of toys to play with. If you’re not careful, you can lock yourself into a
room and never come out. The next thing you know, it’s a year later and people
wonder if maybe you died.”

Though Rusty Paul, 53, grew up surrounded by the emerging technology of sound
recording and is himself an experienced sound engineer, he picked up a video
camera for the first time only a few years ago.

“I’ve done a number of things with dad over the years on the sound recording
end,” he says. “We called it ‘chasing sound.’ Now I guess you could say we’re
chasing pictures.”

Rusty started his current video chase as most of us did, using a low-end
camera to preserve important family events–his grandmother’s 107th birthday
party, his father accepting awards, the family’s former California home. Then
one night he took his camera into Fat Tuesday’s.

“We were just monitoring stuff at first,” says Les, “just to see what we
looked like and maybe how we could improve the program. Well, it looked pretty
darned good! Many people asked us if they could use some of it on the 5 o’clock
news or a documentary show. After a while we got to thinking: maybe we ought to
take this seriously.”

The Pauls get dozens of requests annually for video clips and sound bites from
news and entertainment shows, including CNN, MTV, HBO, the Discovery Channel,
and a variety of morning talk shows. They use their growing archive of images
collected at the nightclub gigs, as well as a cache of historic footage, to
satisfy those requests.

Taping in the Dark
Though he did the initial Fat Tuesday’s tapings using a CCDV9 8mm camera, Rusty
switched to Hi8 as soon as it became available.

“We wanted to stay in the consumer world,” he explains. “Hi8 is the best
available format at a cost-effective level. It’s a great working tool. It’s
amazing the images you can come up with.”

He now uses a Sony V-5000, which he sets up on a tripod, and a 13-inch
monitor. He hardwires the audio to the console, taking the mixed sound off the
board in a direct feed to the camera. He uses PCM digital audio and cassettes
to record the sound. (Les listens to the cassettes in the car on the way home
after the gig.)

One of the biggest challenges of the weekly club shoot, Rusty says, is coping
with the lighting restrictions.

“It’s a nightclub,” he explains. “It’s supposed to be dark. You can’t
introduce too much additional light or people feel like they’re in a hospital.
And in this particular situation, the stage lights are extremely limiting. I
can’t even tilt them the way I’d like to. So I try to strike a balance that
gives me the images I want while making the audience comfortable.”

Rusty says he is currently coping with the club’s lighting with gels, but
still has occasional problems with graininess, dropouts, and hot spots. He and
his father are currently experimenting with a variety of tapes, getting to the
“nitty-gritty.”

A Cramped Atmosphere
The single-camera-on-a-tripod arrangement is another unique challenge of the
Fat Tuesday’s shoot.

“It’s a very small, smoky club with a low ceiling,” Rusty says. “People walk
in front of the camera, bump the tripod, and there are a lot of shots I just
can’t get because I can’t move. It can be very frustrating to be stuck there in
one spot all night.”

Rusty says he makes the most of pans and zooms to create as much interest as
possible from his static position. He swings around to catch crowd reactions,
moves in close on his father’s hands as he plays one or another of his 600-plus
Gibson guitars (all of which bear his name), and tilts up to catch reactions of
band members and guest performers. But, he says, he never “zooms just to
zoom.”

“I try to react to the moment,” he says. “If something new is happening on
stage, I try to frame it a little differently. If something happens in the
audience, like applause, or some kind of club noise, I might pan around and see
what I can pick up to really show the event. But I always strive to keep the
movements very smooth, so they won’t be distracting. I want to add to the
performance.”

Rusty says he and his father are currently considering the advantages of
setting up a three-camera shoot. Their only problem is figuring out how to make
it work with a one-man video production team.

“We care about getting the best stuff,” he says. “But we really want to keep
things small.”

Small their production operation may be, but the father and son team have
captured some big moments. Over the years, electric guitarists of every stripe
have stopped by to sit in with the daddy of them all. From visits by jazz
greats George Benson and Al DiMeola, to Queen’s Brian May, to former Beatle
Paul McCartney, they’ve got it all down on tape.

Post Production’s Place in the Home
The Pauls’ post-production facilities reside in the living room of their
Mahwah, New Jersey, home, where father and son live and work together. Les
himself invented much of the equipment scattered around the Byzantine house,
including the videotape editing console, which he built back in 1979. They also
use Sony SV-S900 Hi8 decks in their post-production work. Other devices and
bits of technology in the Paul household include antiques literally destined
for the Smithsonian. Among these are the world’s first electric guitar and the
first multi-track tape recorder ever built. Both are still working today.

“The editing isn’t very complex or sophisticated at this point,” Rusty says.
“Especially since we’re currently only using a single-camera setup. We aren’t
doing fades or dissolves, just cutting performances together and logging them
so we can get to them when we need to. Eventually I think we’ll be doing much
more.”

Also stored at the house in a special climate-controlled room are reels of
35mm film footage of old performances. Included among these are 170 five-minute
television commercials that Les produced for Listerine and performed with his
vocalist wife, the late Mary Ford. The spots, which ran during the 1950s on the
“Ozzie and Harriet Show,” were recorded upstairs in a home film studio.

Transferring the older film footage to tape has proved to be another
challenge. Using an RCA telecine to accomplish this task, Les and Rusty are
hoping to preserve the aging celluloid images, but are struggling with
synchronizing the sound and picture. It seems Les’s late brother-in-law made
the back-up audio tapes years ago, but the machine he used had a speed
inconsistency. To compensate, they have re-enlisted an ancient audio tape
recorder and fitted it with a vari-speed feature, which they hope will allow
them to match the speed of the original recorder. (Les used this very machine
to record his performance at the White House before then-president
Eisenhower.)

High Tech Contacts
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Les Paul has had quite a history
with television. The Les Paul Trio appeared on one of the first television
broadcasts out of New York City, appearing with the Fred Waring orchestra.

“It was a Wednesday night,” Les recalls, “and the lights were burning hot.”

In 1950, he and Mary appeared on the first televised version of Nashville’s
Grand Ole Opry. He even says he witnessed firsthand the creation of the first
videotape machine by Ampex back in the 1950s. At that time, his friend, the
late Bing Crosby, had turned his Sunset Boulevard offices into an R&D
workshop for the development of another videotape machine. Les and Mary visited
the workshop and saw themselves on tape for the first time. Then Bing asked
whether Les thought he should continue investing in the new technology.

“I said if I were you I’d get out of it,” he recalls. “He asked me why, and I
said you’re only in black and white, while Ampex is already getting into
color.”

Because of Les Paul’s long association with recording technology, the Pauls
have a distinct advantage over mere mortal videomakers when it comes to
searching out the answers to their technical questions. With all the producers,
directors, and technicians surrounding them (and don’t forget Sony
executives
), they can pick up the phone any time and get the best technical
support around.

“If I have a question,” says Les, “I can pick up the phone and call one of the
techs over at Sony and tell him what my problem is and he can help me.”

Their highly placed high-tech contacts have allowed the Pauls to begin
customizing some of their equipment. When Les wanted to bypass the limiter and
the various stages of amplification on the V-5000, he called Sony.

“All you do around here,” he says, “is pick up the phone, call one of the
techs, and the next thing you know, he puts a little hole in the side of the
machine, and you bypass all of that.”

Video Biographer
Continuing to act as his father’s video biographer, Rusty has taped a number of
gigs besides the Fat Tuesday’s show, as well as other important events in Les’s
life. Among them was a performance at the anniversary of the birth of Thomas
Edison, in which Les played his electric guitar through an antique gramophone
horn.

The senior Paul says he has enjoyed the taping process and likes working with
his son. His only regret, he says, is that he didn’t take more pictures
sooner.

“This has always been very much a team effort,” he says. “And I’ve really
enjoyed working with Russ. I just wish we had gotten started earlier. We’ve
lost all of the World War II years (in which he and Mary Ford entertained the
troops), and for Jazz at the Philharmonic, we didn’t take a single picture!
I’ve always focused on the sound, but when you start writing books and
articles, you begin to realize how important the pictures are.”

Rusty Paul says the experience of working with his father has been a good
one.

“Working with dad you can’t help but learn a lot,” he says. “Most of the time,
I’m just trying to keep up with him.”

To other new–if not exactly young–videomakers, Rusty advises mastering the
technology, learning film techniques (“they’re the same for both media”), and
keeping at it. And, he says, keep up with the changing technology.

“The technology is coming fast,” he says, “and it’s changing fast. Within then
next five to ten years, tape will be all but obsolete. Everything will be solid
state, digitized. It’s amazing. I think video is going to open up the world. In
many ways, it already has.”

Keeping up with technology should be no problem for the Pauls.

Considering their track record, we might as well wonder if technology can keep
up with them.

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