From what I gather, the electric guitar started with Les Paul (1915-2009) when he was about 10 years old, messing around with some wire, a railroad track and his mother's radio, which, back then, meant tube amplification. The idea cooked from 1925 until it became a full blown registered hard-body thoroughbred introduced by Gibson in 1952. Les would have been about 37 then. The instrument evolved from electrified hollow-body guitars developed in the mid-1930s to a solid body after World War II and this forever changed the path of popular music. While he was at it, from 1945 to 1967, Les developed sound-on-sound recording technology that paved the way for modern rock ‘n roll. It was no small coincidence that Les Paul was also an accomplished guitar player. This was the big band era and the age of swing with stars such as Fred Waring and Bing Crosby. BB King and Jimi Hendrix would come later.
Some of the older audiophiles around today might still have records of Les Paul and Mary Ford when they played and sang together. In my fervent quest for LPs at garage sales in the ‘90s, I probably tripped right over them in ignorance. And of course these years also saw the passing of the torch from 78 to 33 long playing records. Les retired from performing in 1953, but by the ‘60s his curiosity had him out on the college circuit, displaying his musical virtuosity and his inventive talents with his famous Paulverizer black box on his guitar that allowed him to play multiple instruments at once on his guitar. If he had fired his barber and teamed up with a band and a singer, his legacy as the Godfather of rock ‘n roll would be more universally acknowledged as part of our cultural DNA. Gibson Les Paul guitars are still produced today and highly coveted, topping out over $20,000, though most are priced below $4000.
The year 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of his birth and late in life he created the Les Paul Foundation to propagate his legacy and establish educational support for the values he cherished in life. A new Les-Paul.com website was created and the foundation awards a variety of grants for musical education for youth as well as medical research and programs related to hearing impairment. I can hear my mother screaming "Turn that music down" from her grave, to this day.
It's not exactly clear what the connection is between Les Paul and motorcycles. In 2002 there was a commemorative Les Paul model for the 100th anniversary of Indian Motorcycles, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that the electric guitar is one of the very few instruments that can be heard over the rumble of a big V-twin motor with loud pipes...or possibly something to do with the fact that so many of those riders are hearing impaired. In any case, the foundation commissioned the Les Paul 100th Anniversary Commemorative Custom Chopper to be built by Danny "The Count" Koker of Count's Kustoms, a motorcycle and automotive custom shop in Las Vegas that is well known for transforming vehicles into an art form. The motorcycle was premiered briefly in New York City in Times Square on June 9th, 2015 for a few hours, and it was featured on the TV series "Counting Cars" that has aired on the History Channel. It was put on public display for the first extended period of time at the Progressive International Motorcycle Show at the IX Center in Cleveland, Ohio, January 29-31, 2016. I just happened to be there.
The Progressive International Motorcycle Shows are the equivalent of RMAF, AXPONA or TAVES for motorcycle enthusiasts. There are major exhibits from motorcycle manufacturers as well as smaller exhibits from accessory and clothing companies, and companies promoting touring in scenic states around the country and abroad. Looking to try out a certain model helmet to see what size fits? It's probably there. Need custom leather panniers? You can take them home. Want to ride a bike across the Mongolian Desert? Just sign up!
There are also custom bikes on display, cordoned off on special oval carpets, competing for votes for Best of Show honors in various categories. This is where I came upon the Les Paul Chopper. It was stunning. And quite unlike many of the customs with big front wheels, or long extended front ends. In fact, it was even quite unlike most of the bikes Count Kustoms builds. With its almost normal wheelbase, you could actually ride this one around without much trouble — except for all the attention it would attract. This one was said to be cobbled together from stuff they had laying around the shop, much the way Les Paul might have worked up a new electronic toy for a guitar. The bike was dripping with custom parts relating to Les' inventions.
The rear fender, for example had a strip of wood veneer with mother of pearl bands on it just like he would have used on the neck of a guitar.
Likewise, the foot pegs were spiraled with mother of pearl.
The bolts on the head of the vintage Harley Davidson Shovelhead motor, dating from 1966 to 1985, depending on who you believe, were fashioned after knobs on a mixing board. The custom commemorative brass plate on the air filter box was another major focal point of the design. And to either side of the plate the drilled out brass covers on the engine push-rods were reminiscent of musical instruments. The Counts Customs logo on the aluminum heat shield could have been down-played in scale so as not to compete with the theme of the bike, I felt.
Below that is the ignition cover made of brass paying homage to Gibson Guitars, who, to this day, manufactures the Les Paul models.
From the front we see the springer front suspension that dates back to Les' prime, as well as dual, vertically aligned headlamps from that period. The high-rise handlebars, while somewhat extreme in style, are not exceptionally high and fit well with the smaller overall scale of the bike. Note the engine-turned look of the brass strip around the headlamps. Very classy, if you're into this kind of thing.
Between the front wheel and the frame of the bike was this polished cylinder with a Les Paul guitar engraved on it, along with stylized eagle's wings on either side. Nothing was connected to it, so its purpose remains a mystery... or maybe the bike isn't quite finished, yet.
I noticed there was no brake on the front wheel and while you might think it would be suicide to ride without a front brake, these choppers are tail-heavy. Letting off on the throttle and judicious application of the rear disc brake with the wide rear tire is supposedly the safest way to control these choppers. I wouldn't really know. I've always ridden standard bikes. But I tell you, I'd love to throw a leg over this one, kick start it, cruise up Broadway in Nashville, motor down to Muscle Shoals, slide on over to Memphis and drop down into New Orleans on this sweet ride. I could learn.
It looks like this bike's a shoe-in for a Blue Note Award this year. At the very least I hope I've encouraged you to hop over to
LesPaul.com and LesPaulFoundation.org and get yourself some deeper appreciation for the man, his music and his influence on modern popular music. You can also learn more about Gibson guitars at
Gibson.com. Then follow up with your eyes and your ears on YouTube for some moving videos of tribute performances. But not too loud. Les wouldn't want you to damage your hearing. And remember, as my editor always says, in the end, what really matters is that you...
enjoy the music.