With five Top 10 hits during a nine-month stretch in 1950–51, and another five in 1952–53, guitarist Les Paul and his singing wife Mary Ford provided pretty, perky renditions of classic pop tunes in the somnolent period just before rock ‘n’ roll shook everything up. And though their records ceased to climb the charts after 1955, Paul’s guitar innovations would influence rock for decades. He pioneered recording on tape, devised the first eight-track tape-recording system, designed one of the first synthesizers and invented the Gibson Les Paul guitar — and made it sing like a hipster chorus. “That big, fat, round, ballsy sound with the bright high end is the Les Paul sound,” the master later said. “Nobody else has it.” But everybody stole it. “We used to start our gigs with the opening riffs from ‘How High the Moon,’ ” said another Paul, the one with the Beatles. “Everybody was trying to be a Les Paul clone in those days.”
When Alfred Drake and Frances Comstock first performed the Nancy Hamilton–Morgan Lewis number in the 1940 Broadway revue Two for the Show, “How High the Moon” was a slow fox-trot, a song of longing where the moon is just a distant prop for melancholy. Paul sped it up to 2/4 time and merged 21 separate tracks to create a bubbly blast of pop immortality. He opens with a descending chord pattern that Bill Haley would appropriate for the end of “Rock Around the Clock,” his guitar solo features a lot of the power chords that later rockers would borrow, and Ford’s menthol-smooth voice sometimes teases the lyrics, sometimes caresses them. If the lyrics are wistful, the record’s mood is all cool verve — a mini-masterpiece in two minutes and four seconds.
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