LOU PALLO: LES PAUL’S RIGHT HAND MAN CARRIES ON
Lou Pallo was Les Paul’s close friend and right-hand man in the Les Paul Trio for over 28 years. He was Les’ most enduring bandmate and he is credited with inspiring Les to get back into music after his divorce from partner Mary Ford. Les’ decades-long string of hits on the pop charts had come to an end and prompted his retirement. In 1963, Les sought Lou Pallo out to begin a musical partnership and friendship that would last until the day he died at the age of 94 on August 12, 2009.
Lou also has a long history with SST, IIWII Recording, and SST founder and president, John Hanti. We caught up with him on the eve of his retrospective appearance at the Mahwah, NJ museum.
SST: Let’s start with your appearance this week at the Mahwah Museum to discuss your friendship and musical partnership with Les Paul. How did that start?
LOU: I met Les Paul in the 60s. As a guitarist, I had two idols—Les Paul and Tony Mottola. I was working up in Greenwood Lake, New Jersey in 1963 at a place called the Brandon Pavilion. I was about 40 years old at the time. A waitress came over to me and said, “There’s a man at the bar who wants to meet you.” It was Les Paul. He says “Hi, I’m Les Paul,” We talked for a few minutes, he gave me his phone and said, “Give me a call tomorrow.” Of course, I called the next day and we became friends.
I started spending a lot of time at his house and he started coming to all my gigs in New Jersey. I would get him up on the stage to play—I was playing solo then—and that’s how it started. He would bring his guitar and plug it into my Fender Twin and just follow along with me. He was retired at that time and he wanted to get back into the business again.
SST: You are known as the man of a million chords.
LOU: That’s a name some magazine came up with. They saw me playing with Les and noted that I would play a different chord on each measure; I wouldn’t stay on one chord for a whole bar. That was boring to me. When you record, you have to do that. But for live performance, I just couldn’t stay still on one chord for two measures.
SST: You developed a repertoire of substitutions, then. How did you learn that? How did you develop that technique?
LOU: On my own, course, working with groups that never used a piano. It would be like two saxes, bass, and drums and I would be the chord man. I became like the piano accompaniment. I didn't do too much lead work then because I had to keep the chords going all the time, It was interesting. With the Les Paul Trio, I became the drummer also, because we never used drums. Les said I was like a German soldier marching, so there was no need for a drummer. It was always Les, me, and the bass player.
SST: Were you sort of a catalyst for Les to re-enter the business, then?
LOU: Well, he was still going through his divorce from Mary Ford at the time and he was ready to play again. The first place we played was at Fat Tuesdays on Third Avenue in New York. We moved over to the Iridium near Lincoln Center in 1995.
SST: Your Monday night shows at the Iridium became a regular pilgrimage for famous guitarists from around the world. Keith Richards, Billy Gibbons, Brian May, Jimmy Page. Did you, did you enjoy that?
Lou, Brian May, Les Paul
Lou Pallo and Ted Nugent
Tony Bennett and Lou Pallo
LOU: Oh yes. Actually, you have to go back to Fat Tuesdays, not just the Iridium. Billy Idol, Roy Rogers, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, they all came. A lot of comedians and singers, too. The Mayor of New York, Everybody had to come to see Les Paul. Jerry Stiller, a great comic who was on Seinfeld at the time. I remember when Paul McCartney came to the Iridium. He was with his wife at the time. Her name was Heather. She had a wooden leg. I knocked on her leg for good luck.
SST: You’ve had a long association with SST owner, John Hanti, haven’t you?
LOU: Oh yea. I met John through Paul Sloman. He produced my Candy Box album. That’s been about twenty years ago. We had the Uptown Horns on it, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Bucky Pizzarelli, Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night, Jason Newsted from Metallica. It was a pleasure working with John at IIWI Studios.
SST: Did you tour the States behind the CD or did you do basically one-offs here and there?
LOU: I did shows outside of New York with Les, but I didn’t tour to promote Candy Box. Les didn’t want to do long tours. But we did open the House of Blues in Chicago. We were its first act. We also played for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when it was built. We did a thing with Ray Charles in Ohio to raise money before it was open. We played in California, Mexico, a guitar expo in Spain, but it wasn’t really that much that traveling. Only here and there now and then.
SST: You did another album after Les Paul passed away, didn’t you?
LOU: That was “Thank You, Les.” I did that about six years ago.
SST: Those recordings are a lot of fun. Billy Gibbons, Steve Miller, Eddie Brigati from the Rascals. The track you did with Keith Richards Is particularly interesting because Keith sings with you on that one.
LOU: Oh yes, that was a lot of fun. He was wasn’t supposed to sing on it. His manager, Jane Rose, was there in the control room. I put the lyrics on the stand in the front of him in the studio and said “Keith, sing this part,” so he did. We did one take and went into the control room. Jane said “You’re not supposed to sing on it. We only promised you would play on it.” We went back in to record the guitar, but he went ahead and sang it again. Jane was a good sport about it. She gave in, so his vocal is on the record. He played so well, too! Just unbelievable.
I had already done a lot of recording with Keith before that session at his house in Connecticut. One song we did was “You Win Again” for the Hank Williams “Timeless” tribute album in 2001. That album won a Grammy Award. I played acoustic guitar on it.
SST: Are you still performing regularly?
LOU: Oh yes. I just put a thing together with the Rockit Academy, which is a bunch of kids from 8 years old to 18. We did a Les Paul show in New York about four months ago. It was a great show. We did Les Paul stuff and they were perfect. 15 or 16 of them.
SST? How did they respond to Les Paul's music?
LOU: They loved it. The Rockit Academy was started by Bruce Dalaconti, along with Steve Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's group and Eddie Brigati of The Rascals. I'm involved with them now, too. We put together another show after that doing Rascals material. These kids are just great. Some of them were here about two weeks ago--six of them--to sit in with me and man, can they play...and sing, too! They sing in four-part harmonies--"How High the Moon," "The Tennessee Waltz." Unbelievable.
SST: Talking about Les Paul, he was equally known or better known as an inventor—the first electric guitar, sound on sound, multi-track recording. How did he feel about his own legacy? Did he want it to be remembered more as a musician or as an inventor?
LOU: Les wanted to be known as a jazz musician, more than anything else. No one can ever imitate what he did.
SST: Are there other performances that stand out in your memory?
LOU: One of my biggest thrills was playing with Al Caiola at the Kennedy Center. We played with a 100-piece orchestra and Doc Severinsen was the conductor. That was a big honor. Another project I loved was an album I recorded with guitarists Al Caiola, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Frank Vignola, along with Gary Mazzaroppi on bass. We called it “The Jersey Guitar Mafia” because we were all from New Jersey and we were all Italian. It was beautiful.
The Guitar Mafia