The mini-series Legends of the Les Paul looks at rock gods who not only played Les Pauls, but who were inextricably linked—in image and sound—to the particular Les Pauls they loved. As such, while the guitars helped to make them stars, they clearly made these specific Les Pauls into legends in their own right.

Legendary Associations

Although he died at the age of 25, Paul Kossoff started young in the music business, and packed enough into his 11-year career to be remembered as a prime proponent of classic Les Paul tone. Kossoff became most famous as guitarist in the rock band Free, but as a teenager in his first band, Black Cat Bones, he regularly played supporting gigs for the Peter Green–led Fleetwood Mac.

Whether Green’s ’59 Burst played any role in Kossoff’s decision to procure his equally famous ’59 Les Paul is open to conjecture. What isn’t debatable is the fact that Kossoff’s Burst is firmly ensconced in the pantheon of celebrated ’59 Les Paul Standards.

Paul Kossoff

Free Birth

Kossoff got his first tastes of the glories of Gibson’s exalted Les Paul when he was just 15, working at Selmer’s music store in London’s Charing Cross Road, a prime West End hangout for many name artists of the day. Both Keith Richards and Jeff Beck acquired their own Bursts at Selmer’s, and it’s hard to imagine that the young Kossoff didn’t develop a taste for the tone and feel of the Les Paul during his time there.

Kossoff was still just 16 years old when he formed Free with singer Paul Rogers, bassist Andy Fraser, and drummer Simon Kirke—all of whom were also still in their teens—and the band was quickly signed by Island Records. Their 1968 debut album Tons of Sobs, and the follow up, Free, displayed a refreshingly straight-forward take on soulful British blues amid the psychedelic revolution of the day, but it was 1970’s Fire and Water that really launched Free to the big time, largely via the massive worldwide his “All Right Now.”

Trenchant Tone

During his short career, Kossoff became known for his rich, trenchant, singing lead tone—something we now associate as being entirely characteristic of the Les Paul—and drew praise for his tasteful chops from far more mature and experienced players. Listening back with 21st century hindsight, Kossoff’s sound on record is often cleaner and clearer than we might have thought we remembered, with just enough bite to elicit a singing, sustaining character, but never the overt crunch or over-the-top saturation of heavier rockers.

A handful of other Les Pauls, vintage and early reissue, graced the Kossoff lineup during the latter part of his career. But we will forever associate his deep, rich tone, musical phrasing, and wide, evocative vibrato technique with the faded, beautifully flamed ’59, which went to a friend after his death.

Following the breakup of Free in 1973, Kossoff formed the band Back Street Crawler and continued to record and tour expensively, but the fast life of the road and the early fame seemed to have proved too much for him. Having dipped in and out of heroin abuse for several years, Kossoff died of a drug-related heart attack on a flight from Los Angeles to New York in 1976. His father, actor David Kossoff, remained and ardent campaigner against drug abuse until his own death in 2005.