A towering figure in the development of popular music, Les Paul was a musician and inventor who contributed greatly to the creation of the solid-body guitar, while also breaking new ground in sound re...
A towering figure in the development of popular music, Les Paul was a musician and inventor who contributed greatly to the creation of the solid-body guitar, while also breaking new ground in sound recording through his experiments with multiple tracks and other electronic effects. Most importantly, Paul was an astonishingly gifted jazz guitarist who enjoyed a lengthy string of pop hits in the early 1950s with upbeat singles like "How High the Moon," "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise" and "Vaya Con Dios," which featured his wife, singer Mary Ford, singing all four parts in gorgeous harmony. Paul's work on the solid-body guitar gave the electric guitar a power and polish that would prove essential to the development of rock-n-roll, while his efforts with multi-track recorders allowed musicians to hear previously recorded tracks while recording overdubs. In doing so, Paul had immeasurable impact on the sound and scope of popular music, a status that earned him the respect of countless musicians but the highest tributes from the industry until his death in 2009.
Born Lester William Polfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, WI, Les Paul was the youngest of two sons by George Polfuss, who owned a car repair and taxicab company, and his wife, Evelyn, who counted the founders of the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company and the Stutz Motor Company among her extended family. Paul proved musically adept from an early age by singing and dancing for his mother's friends before the age of three, but did not pursue any formal musical training until he turned eight years old. A chance encounter with a workman playing a harmonica piqued Paul's interest in the instrument, which he soon mastered. He soon added piano to his growing list of talents, which also gave rise to a growing interest in technology and sound manipulation through punched holes in a player piano roll, which added new musical parts to a song. Paul also built his own crystal-radio set to pick up far-flung broadcasts in order to soak up a wide variety of sounds. The set cultivated a growing interest in guitar and banjo that soon dominated his attention, and he began playing with a country musical named Claud J. Moye, who performed comic routines on Chicago's WLS radio.
Paul was soon skilled enough to play his own sets under the moniker of "Red Hot Red." Many of these live performances took place at outdoor venues like drive-ins, which prompted Paul to construct a primitive public address system by wiring a phonograph needle from the neck of his guitar into a radio speaker. By 1934, Paul was playing in Chicago clubs and on the radio, where he performed a hillbilly act as Rhubarb Red, as well as a jazz combo a la Django Reinhardt's Quintette du Hot Club de France, for which he adopted the stage name of Les Paul. His first recordings appeared two years later, shortly before he joined Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians in New York, which provided him with his first national exposure. It was during this period that Paul began experimenting with creating his own electric guitar. He soon developed a solid-body guitar prototype he called "the Log," which was nothing more than a bridge, guitar neck and pickup attached to a 4x4 piece of lumber. The Log eliminated feedback which occurred when using acoustic guitars with electrical amplification and provided considerable sustain, since there was no actual guitar body to dampen the notes. However, the new model nearly killed Paul in 1940, when he was electrocuted during a jam session in his apartment.
After recovering, he located to Hollywood, where he formed a new trio before being drafted into the Army during World War II. There, he served in the Armed Forces Network, where he backed such top recording artists as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Paul's initial taste of stardom came at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944, where he replaced Nat "King" Cole's guitar player, Oscar Moore. The show and subsequent recording provided a world-class showcase for Paul, who demonstrated his exceptional speed and ability to craft unique solos with a band that featured such major league jazz talents as Cole, Illinois Jacquet, J.J. Johnson and Meade "Lux" Lewis. Paul and his trio soon became staples of Bing Crosby's radio show and concerts with the Andrews Sisters, with whom he also recorded two singles in 1946. That same year, he also began performing regularly with a vocalist named Colleen Summers, with whom he would also begin a romantic relationship.
Two years later, Paul recorded an instrumental version of the Rodgers-Hart song "Lover" using his own modification of the Ampex Model 200, the first reel-to-reel audio tape recorder. By adding an additional playback head, Paul was able to play along with a previously recorded track, which was then mixed together onto a separate new track. Ampex would use his modifications to create two- and three-track recorders, which would become the recording device of choice for professional music, radio and television studios in the '50s and '60s. His recording of "Lover," which featured eight guitar parts, all played by Paul and recorded at various speeds on acetate discs, marked his first multi-track recording. The single, released by Capitol in 1948, reached No. 21 on the Billboard 100, kicking off Paul's recording career in high style.
However, his ascent was soon interrupted by a 1948 car crash in Oklahoma that shattered his right arm and elbow. Doctors advised him to amputate the limb or allow them to reset it at a permanent angle. Paul chose the latter option, which set his arm at a near-90 degree bend that allowed him to hold and pick his guitar. A year of recovery, during which Paul married Ford, preceded his return to the pop scene and a slew of Top 5 hits, including 1951's "Mocking Bird Hill" and the chart-topping "How High the Moon," as well as "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise" (1951), "Tiger Rag" (1952) and a second No. 1 with"Vaya Con Dios" (1953). These and numerous other songs represented the peak of Paul's multi-tracking skills, with Ford providing warm multiple harmonies over Paul's nimble guitar work. The pair also enjoyed a popular radio program, "The Les Paul Show," for NBC in 1950, as well as "The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show," a 15-minute syndicated television series from 1954 to 1955.
During this period, Paul's designs for a sold-body guitar, which he had been pitching to guitar manufacturers since the mid-1940s, were finally accepted by Gibson, which began incorporating elements into a model called the Gibson Les Paul. The elegant-looking guitar remained in fashion until the early 1960s, when the Fender Stratocaster supplanted it in the market. However, the Les Paul model experienced a resurgence in the middle of the decade, thanks largely to Eric Clapton, who used it on his 1966 album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, as well as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who had used Les Paul models since the early 1960s. Their patronage led to a revival of interest among other rock musicians, including Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Mick Taylor and others. Paul would also further develop multi-track recording by designing the first 8-track recorder. Known as the "Sel-Sync" system, it allowed musicians to hear a previously recorded track for the purposes of making a new synced overdub with an additional track.
Paul's own musical career began to wane in the late 1950s before sputtering to a temporary end in 1965. His singles with Ford fell out of favor with listeners, and their marriage soon collapsed as well. An ugly divorce case involving charges of infidelity and cruelty on both sides preceded their split in 1964, after which Paul briefly struck out on his own, recording Les Paul Now (1968), an album of updated versions of his established hits, before entering semi-retirement. He resurfaced in the mid-1970s with two albums that pitted him against another formidable guitar player, Chet Atkins, and proved that his chops were not only intact but also still ferocious, particularly in a duet with jazz guitarist Al DiMeola in 1980. That same year, a documentary called "The Wizard of Waukesha" (1980) aired on PBS, sparking a revival of interest in his life and accomplishments. Paul received the Grammy Trustees Award in 1983 shortly before reigniting his concert career with regular Monday night performances at New York's Fat Tuesday club. The appearances attracted both longtime fans and those who had only heard Paul in archival recordings, as well as a steady stream of famous admirers, many of whom sat in with Paul during these performances.
Paul underwent heart surgery in 1987, which only briefly halted his performance schedule. The following year, Jeff Beck inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which preceded a lengthy slew of accolades for his work, including the Spiritual Merit/Technical Grammy Award in 2001, a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall in celebration of his 90th birthday, and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2005 and 2006. He continued to play weekly at the Iridium Club, located across the street from Fat Tuesday, and released his first album of new material, called American Made World Played in 2005. A host of star musicians backed Paul on the record, including Richards, Beck, Clapton and Steve Miller, whom Paul had once babysat back in 1950. A second documentary, "Chasing Sound: Les Paul at 90," aired on PBS' "American Masters" (1986- ) in 2007, the same year Paul was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
In 2008, Paul received the American Music Masters Award from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A host of celebrity fans paid tribute to his work at a tribute concert in Cleveland, including Slash of Guns 'N Roses, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and a host of guitar instrumental wizards, including the Ventures, Lonnie Mack, James Burton, Dennis Coffey and Duane Eddy. The following year, Les Paul succumbed to complications from pneumonia at the age of 94 on Aug. 13, 2009 after several lengthy hospital stays. Dozens of musicians, including U2's The Edge and Slash, gave heartfelt tribute to the man whose technological accomplishments had a major impact on their own careers. Over 1,500 attendees paid their final tribute to Paul at a ceremony at Discovery World in Milwaukee. Two years later, Rolling Stone placed Paul at No. 18 on their list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time."