Paul, Les(originally, Polfuss, Lester William)

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Paul, Les(originally, Polfuss, Lester William)

Paul, Les(originally, Polfuss, Lester William) , American guitarist and inventor; b. Waukesha, Wise, June 9, 1915. As a guitarist, Paul performed without regard to style, gaining recognition in the genres of country, jazz, and pop music and, with Mary Ford, scoring such hits as “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “How High the Moon,” and “Vaya con Dios (May God Be with You).” As an inventor he pioneered the development of the electric guitar and sophisticated recording techniques that had a broad impact on the sound of popular music from the 1940s onward.

Paul was the son of George William Polfuss (real name Polsfuss), the owner of a car-repair service, and Evelyn Stutz Polfuss. He began to play the harmonica at about the age of eight, then taught himself piano, banjo, and, at 12, guitar. In his teens he began performing as Red Hot Red and soon embarked on a career as a radio musician, first at local stations, then in the major cities of the Midwest. Billed as Rhubarb Red, at first he played country music, then pop and jazz. He married Virginia Webb in 1938 and they had two children; they divorced in 1948.

By 1938, Paul had formed a jazz trio that played on the Fred Waring Show out of N.Y. through 1941. He then worked in radio in Chicago and moved to Calif, in 1943, where he formed another trio and performed on various radio shows as well as appearing in a cameo role in the June 1944 film Sensations of 45. While serving in the U.S. Army in 1944 he performed on various military radio programs. Upon his discharge he re-formed his trio and signed to Decca Records.

Paul and his trio backed Bing Crosby on his recording of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), which hit #1 in December 1945. On his own he accompanied the Andrews Sisters on “Rumors Are Flying” (music and lyrics by Bennie Benjamin and George David Weiss), which peaked in the Top Ten in December 1946. During the 1940s he developed his own amplified guitars and experimented with overdubbing in his own home-recording studio. In January 1948 he was severely injured in an automobile accident and endured a long recovery. He formed a musical partnership with singer-guitarist Mary Ford (real name Iris Colleen Summers Watson), and they married on Dec. 29, 1949. They had two children and adopted one.

In 1950, signed to Capitol Records, Paul began to score hits with the results of his musical experiments, records on which his electric guitar was overdubbed multiple times to create unusual musical textures. His instrumental revival of the 1916 tune “Noia” (music by Felix Arndt) peaked in the Top Ten in August 1950. He also made recordings on which Mary Ford sang, and their “Tennessee Waltz” (music and lyrics by Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King) peaked in the Top Ten in January 1951, beginning a year in which they became the most successful recording artists in the U.S. Ten other recordings were in the charts during 1951 (some of them Paul instrumentais), including the #1 million-selling hits “Mockin’ Bird Hill” (music and lyrics by Vaughn Horton) and “How High the Moon” (music by Morgan Lewis, lyrics by Nancy Hamilton)—the latter inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1979—and a million-selling Top Ten revival of the 1919 song “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” (music by Ernest Seitz, lyrics by Eugene Lockhart). They also reached the Top Ten of the LP charts with New SoundVol. 1 and New SoundVol. 2.

In 1952 the Gibson guitar company introduced the Les Paul solid-body electric guitar, which went on to revolutionize popular music. During the year, Paul alone or Paul and Ford had another nine singles chart entries, among them a Top Ten revival of the 1918 song “Tiger Rag” (music by Edwin B. Edwards, Nick La Rocca, Tony Spargo, and Larry Shields, lyrics by Harry Da Costa), and another Top Ten album, Bye Bye Blues. Their five singles chart entries in 1953 included the biggest hit of their career, “Vaya con Dios (May God Be with You)” (music and lyrics by Larry Russell, Inez James, and Buddy Pepper), which hit #1 in August, selling a million copies and becoming the biggest hit of the year. They also reached the Top Ten of the LP charts with Hit Makers.

Les Paul and Mary Ford were less successful after 1953, though they hit the Top Ten three more times in 1954 and 1955. They switched to Columbia Records in 1958 and continued to reach the charts until 1961. They split up as a performing duo in 1963 and divorced in December 1964.

Paul largely gave up performing, concentrating on developing new recording techniques and improving his line of guitars, though he released the album Les Paul Now! in 1968. In the early 1970s he returned to performing occasionally. In 1976 he released a duo guitar album with Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester, which won the Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. The two were nominated for the Best Pop Instrumental Performance Grammy for their follow-up album, Guitar Monsters, in 1978.

Following heart surgery, Paul retired in the early 1980s, but in March 1984 he began playing a weekly show at the jazz club Fat Tuesday’s in N.Y. Later he moved to another club, Iridium, where he continued to play on Monday nights into the late 1990s.


les paul and mary ford:The New Sound (1955); The New Sound, Vol. 2 (1955); Bye Bye Blues (1955); The Hit Makers (1955); Les and Mary (1955); Time to Dream (1957); Lovers’ Luau (1959); The Hits of Les Paul and Mary Ford (1960); Warm and Wonderful (1961); Bouquet of Roses (1962); Swingin’ South (1963); The Fabulous Les Paul and Mary Ford (1965); The World Is Still Waiting for the Sunrise (1974). les paul and chet atkins:Chester and Lester (1976); Guitar Monsters (1978). les paul:Les Paul Now! (1968; resissued as The Genius of Les Paul-Multi-Trackin’; 1979); Tiger Rag (1984); Masters of the Guitar Together (1989)Les Paul and Mary Ford (1992); The Legend and the Legacy (1991); The Best of The Capitol Masters (1992); Greatest Hits! (1994); 16 Most Requested Songs (1996).


M. Shaughnessy, L. P.: An American Original (N.Y., 1993).

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Paul, Les(originally, Polfuss, Lester William)

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