Fresh off his “Something’s Gonna Happen” performances in New York earlier this year celebrating his 30th anniversary as a recording artist, Marshall Crenshaw returns to the Big Apple for an intimate series of concerts at the Iridium Jazz Club Oct. 29-31.
Billed as “Marshall Crenshaw Salutes Unsung Heroes of the Gibson Les Paul,” the first two nights will feature Crenshaw with the Les Paul Trio with special guest vocalist Nikki Jean and other guitar heroes. In this exclusive interview, I spoke with the Grammy- and Golden Globe-nominated musician about his recent activities, what it’s like hosting a radio show on New York’s legendary WFUV, and the time Les Paul mistook him for a heckler.
How was the reception to the “Something’s Gonna Happen” shows?
It was great, it was really fun. What killed me was just how emotional people got and how really excited people were by it. People were coming in from all over the country to see that show, and it just blew me away, you know—the level of emotional engagement in the city. And it was fun, but when I can get up there and verbally explain some aspects of my story, that was kind of cool. It was great; it was a real fun exercise. I’m still doing 30th anniversary shows, but it’s more of a well-rounded overview of my 30 years as a recording artist; I’m not doing the whole first album onstage. That City Winery thing was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
You picked the best place to do it. I know that’s been your home base for a while now, and it was great to see your brother Robert back on drums.
Yeah, my two brothers really loved it; it was a real trip for them, I know. Looking back on stage playing that music, it really meant a whole lot to them, so that was a sweet deal. I liked seeing them so into it.
Since this was such a positive experience, would you do it with your follow-up album, Field Day?
No, I wouldn’t play that one all the way through. There’s just too many songs on there that don’t hold up for me that I don’t want to play or sing. That’s not to say that I have any ill feelings about the album; I’ve had to defend that album personally a lot over the years and I’m fine with the album, but to obsess about doing that, I don’t feel like it.
But for [your most recent album] Jaggedland, that’s something you’d be open to at some point, right?
(Laughs.) Maybe, yeah. But actually, I’m just starting to get kind of tired of some of those songs.
You’re now hosting WFUV’s “Bottomless Pit.” What new things have you learned about music or radio as a result?
The show is pretty much unchanged from what I was doing on WKZE up here in the Hudson Valley. It’s really the same show on WFUV; I haven’t changed it at all. But I’m loving it; I don’t know why, but for some reason I get a huge kick out of doing that show. It’s done entirely on my terms, and all the stuff I play, I have some kind of history with it, some kind of emotional connection with it. So it’s personal, and it’s a great exercise; I’m really enjoying it. We just had a really successful pledge drive [last] Saturday, and I actually went to the station and did it live this time, so it was a social experience on top of being just a good show.
My dad lives in Florida and said it’s good hearing you on WFUV.
Yeah, a lot of people listen to WFUV in kind of far-flung locales, you know? It’s way beyond a New York thing.
Whose idea was these upcoming Iridium shows, and how did it all come together?
I remember talking g to my manager about the idea. The Les Paul Trio, even though Les Paul has passed away, they still do a Monday night thing with the Les Paul Trio, and they have guest guitarists come up and it’s kind of a mixed bag. I saw that one week they had Robben Ford and then another week they had Ted Nugent, and it’s just kind of all over the place, you know? And I try to imagine what some of those gigs must have been like.
They wanted to get [me] in for one of those Mondays, and I was flattered, absolutely. And then I thought, maybe it would be fun to do something fanatic. I just came off doing this show in Chicago, and it was part of a concert series called United Sounds of America, and I put together the Detroit night, which was really eclectic and really heavy duty. People really dug it and I loved it; I loved doing it. So the idea of the Les Paul thing just hit me that maybe it would be fun to put a little bit of thought behind it; get up and play some rock and roll tunes with the Les Paul Trio, which I think is a little dubious, anyway.
So I thought of some of my favorite players over the years who played Gibson Les Pauls besides the usual suspects like Duane Allman and Eric Clapton and the Beatles and all that…[the unsung heroes] were playing Gibson Les Pauls, and you never hear their music played anymore, like Al Nevins from the Three Suns. There’s groups where it’s something like a cult thing for that music nowadays, but I thought it would be fun if we played it live. So anyway, I just rattled this off the top of my head to my manager and he went to the Iridium guy and told him the idea, [who] said, this is really gonna be cool.
And I decided to do it on a Saturday and Sunday. And then on Monday it’ll be just me with the Les Paul Trio for a normal sort of a thing where I do a 40-minute set with them, but on Saturday and Sunday there’s going to be a lot of pageantry, and then we have a great young female artist named Nikki Jean, who’s going to come in and sing a Mickey & Sylvia tune—Mickey Baker is one of the guitar players we’re paying tribute to—and she’s going to do a couple of her own tunes also, and I think she’s fantastic. And Charlie Giordano from the E Street Band, he’s playing accordion, and Steuart Smith from the Eagles. It’s really like a feast for music lovers.
The Monday night show also happens to be Halloween. Will that offer a bit of a departure setlist-wise?
(Laughs.) Halloween, yeah. I don’t know; I’ll have to put on a costume, I guess. I hadn’t thought about that.
I never realized that “Monster Mash” was a number one single until this thing called Wikipedia came along.
Sure, “Monster Mash.” I remember that one.
Are there any other unsung heroes you want to give a shout-out to that people can discover for themselves?
Well, again, our roster is Mickey Baker, who had a little flash of stardom with Mickey & Sylvia; they had a big hit [“Love Is Strange”] in the ’50s. But he also was a session guy who played on hundreds and hundreds of records. There’s Frank Beecher from Bill Haley and the Comets. There’s Feddie King; you know, we’re going to do one there—he’s a legendary blues guitarist and singer. We might be doing a Jim Hall composition; there are some photos of Jim Hall where he’s playing a black Les Paul, so we might have to throw in something by him.
How do the rehearsals work for something like this?
They way I think it’s going to be is maybe two or three rehearsals for this, because I really want to get it right. And some of the music is really difficult, so I think it’s really important that we’re all comfortable. It’s a lot of music and there’s a lot of variety to the music. So that will be two rehearsals and maybe a third.
How did Les Paul come into your life as a guitar player and a musician?
The first time I ever remember hearing Les Paul. (Pauses.) Les Paul & Mary Ford were huge, but it was a little bit before I was born, you know? But I heard them; they did some commercials for Robert Hall, a discount clothing chain, and these commercials were on the radio around 1960, 1961. I was like seven years old, and I remember that it was absolutely ethereal sounding to me, his sound with all the layered vocals and sped up guitars. I just thought it was so bizarre, you know? I remember those Robert Hall commercials.
And then many years later—I mean, I’d already heard of him, he was famous—but I got into the Les Paul guitars because in the mid-‘60s they weren’t being made anymore but all of a sudden you saw people playing them, and I was really into guitars as a kid. This kind of demand began to build for Les Paul guitars even though they weren’t making them anymore. And then one day my brother Mitchell brought home a bunch of those 78s. You know, those big ten inch records, shellac records. He brought home 78s that he and his friends had found in a garbage pile—people used to just put their 78s in the [expletive] garbage. And there was a Les Paul 78 in this pile: one side of it was “Brazil,” an instrumental, and the other side was this thing called “Lover.”
And this record was just the craziest thing I had ever heard; I was fascinated with it. At the time, there was just more stuff becoming available and more interest building in Les Paul & Mary Ford; they were being rediscovered. I remember in 1974, this reissue album came out called The World Is Still Waiting for the Sunrise. And I bought that record and it was one of three records that came out that year that just knocked me on my ass. There was that, there was the Elvis Presley song collection, you know, the Sun Records stuff being reissued for the first time, and then there was a Gene Vincent reissue album called The Bop That Just Won’t Stop. Those three records coming out in 1974 just was like boom, boom, boom for me—so I really knew Les Paul by the time I was 18, 19 years old.
But I love his sound, you know? As far as the tone when he’s playing guitar, he has just a really beautiful, identifiable sound; it’s big and fat. Every note is really big and fat sounding, with his echo, and I’ve always loved his sound and his style. He invented this; he was really a mad scientist kind of guy musically, with the inventions and everything like that, and his music is really eccentric and weird, but really intriguing and cool.
Did you ever perform with Les Paul?
No, uh-uh, I never have, although I’ll tell you this: my wife and I went and saw Les Paul in the Detroit area, and he did an in-store at a music shop…and that was really weird because he hadn’t been out for years and he was sort of making a comeback. And the first gig that I ever went to was in New York City, and when I moved there it was to see Les Paul and Chet Atkins at the Bottom Line, and they made some albums together; they were really wonderful albums. And I’d never been to the Bottom Line before, so I sit down in the audience and Les is talking, and he says something about, “this guy came up to me and said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got all your old records.’” And I just immediately shouted out from the audience, “So do I!” Right? And Les fired back and then he goes, “Oh, you must be smoking Geritol, man.” You know, like he was putting me down as a heckler, right?
Have you ever heard of Danny Gatton? He died about 15 years ago and I remember there were some big tribute shows to him in New York, and I was on one of them and Les Paul was on the second that we had that day—he was friendly to me and I shook his hand and that was it; that’s the only time I ever had contact with him.
Have you ever thought about writing an autobiography or a book that chronicles your life in music?
I don’t know; I wouldn’t rule it out, you know? I’ve done so many different things, I guess. I have no thought about doing it right now, but hopefully I still have a few years left, walking upright, walking the earth, so maybe I will.
Marshall Crenshaw will perform “Unsung Heroes of the Gibson Les Paul” Oct. 29-31 at the Iridium Jazz Club, 1650 Broadway at 51st Street. For more information, go to http://theiridium.com. Visit Marshall online at http://marshallcrenshaw.com.
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