Guitarist, songwriter, inventor
Besides being a phenomenal guitarist, Les Paul can be credited with pioneering most of the major breakthroughs in musical technology that are today considered industry standards (although in the 1940’s they must have been mind-boggling): phase shifting, overdubbing, reverb, delay, and sound-on-sound recording. He is also the inventor of the eight-track recorder and perhaps the most popular electric guitar today, the Gibson Les Paul. In addition, his recordings made with his former wife, Mary Ford, in the 1950s have sold well over the ten million mark. Even today, in his seventies, Paul is still working on new inventions and creating magical music. “Les Paul is more of a hell-raiser than some of the burnt-out cases who play the guitar with his name on it,” reported Guitar World. Anybody who plugs a six-stringer in, whether they know it or not, has been influenced by the man. From Wes Montgomery to James Burton to Jimi Hendrix, Les Paul has been a major inspiration.
Paul began his musical education about the same time he discovered electronics. By age nine he had built his first crystal radio set and was beginning to blow on the harmonica. The first sound he heard on his new radio was a guitar and soon he was plucking on one of his own. Shortly afterwards, Paul was playing for small organizations, like the Lions Club, as Rhubarb Red and making $30-35 per week. Many of the dates were outside and he needed to be loud enough to be heard. He solved that by sticking a phonograph needle inside an acoustic guitar and plugging it into his radio for amplification. At thirteen he had built his own broadcasting station and a recording machine.
Paul began singing in a country band with guitarist Joe Wolverton and a year later the two formed their own acoustic duet, Sunny Joe and Rhubarb Red, playing together until 1933. After the Chicago World’s Fair, Paul stayed in the Windy City working two jobs: one as Rhubarb Red on WJJD’s morning show playing western music; the other playing Eddie Lang- and Djago Reinhardt-styled jazz at night on WIND as Les Paul. He began toying with the idea of a solidbody guitar to increase sustain (the theory being that the pickups and the body should remain still, allowing the strings to vibrate longer) and in 1934 he commissioned the Larsen Brothers to build him such an instrument. Two years later he retired his Rhubarb Red character and formed a jazz trio with Jim Atkins (Chef’s brother) and Ernie Newton.
The three headed to New York and landed a job with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, playing nationally on NBC radio, five nights a week, for the next three years. With such a huge audience, some listeners weren’t quite ready for the sound of an electric guitar
Name originally Lester William Polfuss; born June 9, 1916, in Waukesha, Wis.; son of George and Evelyn (Stutz) Polfuss; married Mary Ford (real name, Colleen Summers; a singer), December 1949 (divorced, 1964); children: Lester, Gene, Colleen, Robert, Mary.
Played guitar and harmonica under pseudonym Rhubarb Red while a teenager; performed on-air at Chicago radio stations WIND and WJJD during early 1930s; formed Les Paul Trio, 1936; played with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, 1937–40; worked as musical director for WIND and WJJD, 1940–43; drafted into Armed Forces Radio Service as an entertainer for the troops, 1943–46; opened own recording studio, c. 1947; began recording career (with wife, Mary Ford), 1949—; inventor of synchronous multi-track tape recorder, c. 1949, and of sound-on-sound recording technique; co-host, with wife, Mary Ford, of television show, “Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home,” during 1950s; design consultant to Gibson Guitar Corp.; inventor of numerous electronic and musical devices; served as musicial director of television show “Happy Days,” beginning in 1974.
Awards: Grammy Award (with Chet Atkins) for best country instrumental, 1976, for album Chester & Lester; named (with Mary Ford) to Grammy Hall of Fame, 1977; received Grammy Achievement Award for contributions to recording and musical instruments industry, 1983; named to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1988; the Smithsonian Institution dedicated a wing of their American Music Exhibit to Les Paul.
Addresses: Home— Mahwah, New Jersey.
and sent letters to Paul demanding that he unplug. After flipping a coin, Paul decided to stick by his idea, which over the years has caused him both grief and satisfaction. “In spite of all the opposition you just go in and you battle,” he told Steve Rosen of Guitar World, “because you know you’re right and it’s a great feeling to know you’re right. And that’s determination.”
After the Waring gig ended in 1940, Paul headed back to Chicago to play with the Ben Bernie band while working as the musical director for WJJD and WIND. He continued to experiment with the solidbody and in 1941 assembled “The Log,” a hunk of four-inch-thick lumber with two pickups and an Epiphone neck attached to it (two sides were bolted on for cosmetic purposes). “You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding,” he told Tom Evans in Guitars. “It didn’t sound like a banjo or a mandolin, but like a guitar, an electric guitar. That was the sound I was after.”
When Paul moved to California in 1943, two neighbors who were also pioneers of the electric guitar, Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender, used to come over and check out his radical concept. Paul tried to get his instrument marketed, but nobody was interested. “When I took it to Gibson around 1945 or 1946, they politely ushered me out the door,” he told Guitar Player’s Jon Sievert. “They called it a broomstick with a pickup on it.” Seven years after Paul’s invention, Fender introduced the Broadcaster, the first production solidbody electric guitar. Gibson began to frantically search for that guy with the crazy broomstick.
Once in Los Angeles Paul was drafted by the Armed Forces Radio Service as an entertainer for troops. Stationed in Hollywood, he backed artists like Dinah Shore and the Andrew Sisters and even cut an album as Paul Leslie entitled Jazz At The Philharmonic. After recording “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” with Bing Crosby in 1946, the singer convinced Paul to build his own sound studio. With a precision flywheel from a Cadillac automobile as a recording lathe and utilizing his own garage, Paul began to record other artists as well as his own songs, including “Lover” and “Brazil,” in which he played all the parts himself. Paul had seven number-one hits using multiple disc recording, including “Nola,” “Goofus,” and “Little Rock Getaway,” which mark the beginning of the Les Paul sound. “In 1948, the door was open, and there was a hole sitting there, and I came along with the idea of the Les Paul sound,” he explained to Guitar Player. “It was wide open for me to come in and clean up and sell millions of records, because there was nobody in that bag.”
That same year, Paul’s right arm was severely crushed in an auto accident. Nearly amputated, doctors permanently set the arm in a position which allowed Paul to continue to play guitar. A year later he met and married Gene Autry’s singer, Colleen Summer. She changed her name to Mary Ford and the pair began an illustrious career which included their own seven-year television show, “Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home.” Their first multi-track tape hit, “How High The Moon,” was released in March of 1951 and, after reaching number one, went on to sell 1.5 million copies. The duo peaked in 1953 with “Vaya Con Dios,” which was number one for nine weeks.
In 1952 Ampex began marketing the first multi-track (8) tape recorder ever, which Paul had designed a few years earlier. By then Gibson had found Paul, and after working with him on the designs, released the first Les Paul model guitars. He decided on a gold finish to make them look richer and shaped the guitar like a violin so it would be associated with the prestigious Stradivarius instruments. There were four additional models to choose from (the Custom, Junior, TV and Special) and in 1961 Gibson came up with the thinner, double-cutaway model, the SG. Unhappy with that product, Paul asked that his name be removed from the headstock. In 1968, Gibson reintroduced the single cutaway and eventually ended up with seven variations of the Les Paul guitar.
Paul and Ford were divorced in 1964 and he veered away from music to concentrate on inventing. One of his most unique ideas, but as yet unavailable to the public, is the Paulverizer: a remote control box for a tape recorder that plugs into the guitar and lets the player control any number of sounds right from the instrument. In 1974 he started playing professionally again while working as the musical director for the “Happy Days” television show. He recorded an album (in one day!) with the great Chet Atkins in 1977, Chester and Lester. Of Atkins and the record, Paul told Guitar Player, “He’s so rhythmically tight and colorful and distinctive that it leaves me wide open to tear off way out in the field somewhere and fly my kite. In show business, there are guys who can wing it, and you’re talking to a winger.”
After a coronary bypass operation in 1979, Paul took a five-year break before beginning his steady Monday night gig at Fat Tuesdays, a Manhattan nightclub. Even though he suffered a broken eardrum and contracted arthritis in his left hand (limiting him to the use of only his index and middle fingers), Paul is still in league all his own. “I’ve had to make a new way of playing, but in some ways it’s proved to be advantageous,” he told Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player. It stretches your head out, makes you think more.” In 1988 Cinemax filmed a show at New York’s Majestic Theater honoring Paul with special guests Van Halen, Steve Miller, B.B. King, and Stanley Jordan paying tribute. When an earlier hit, “Nola,” recently reached number 1 in China, Paul decided to start releasing his older work on video and compact disc. And as usual, he continues to work with Gibson inventing new products. Les Paul virtually wrote the book on music electronics, and after 22 gold records, “The Wizard of Waukesha” remains one of the true innovative geniuses of 20th-century music.
New Sound, Capitol, 195?
New Sound, Volume 2, Capitol, 195?
Bye Bye Blues, Capitol, 195?
Hit Makers, Capitol.
Les & Mary, Capitol.
Time To Dream, Capitol.
Hits of Les & Mary, Capitol.
Les Paul & Mary Ford, Harmony, 1965.
Les Paul Now, London, 1968.
Very Best of Les Paul, Capitol, 1974.
Tiger Rag, Pickwick.
Les Paul Story, Volume 1, Capitol, 1974.
Les Paul Story, Volume 2, Capitol, 1974.
The World Is Waiting For the Sunrise, Capitol, 1974.
Guitar Tapestry, Project 3.
Chester and Lester, RCA, 1976.
Guitar Monsters, RCA, 1978.
The Genius of Les Paul—Multi Trackin, London, 1979.
Early Les Paul Trio (transcriptions of 1947 radio broadcasts), Capitol.
The World Is Still Waiting for the Sunrise, Capitol.
The Fabulous Les Paul and Mary Ford, Columbia, 1988.
Evans, Tom, and Mary Anne Evans, Guitars: From the Renaissance to Rock, Facts on File, 1977.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
down beat, May, 1988.
Guitar Player, May, 1976; December, 1977; June, 1979; February, 1982; June, 1983; August, 1984.
Guitar World, September, 1984; November, 1986; November, 1987; December, 1988.
Rolling Stone, May 6, 1976.
—Calen D. Stone
American guitarist and inventor Les Paul (born 1915) was responsible for a significant portion of the technical apparatus of contemporary popular music.
He invented multitrack recording and overdubbing, using those techniques for the first time in 1947; within a few years they were essential to hundreds of popular record releases, and most popular song recordings are inconceivable without them today. Paul also pioneered other recording sound effects such as reverb, delay, and phase shifting. He was among the first developers of the solid-body electric guitar, which went on to become the defining instrument of rock and roll, and he designed the Gibson Les Paul, one of the two dominant electric guitar makes of the classic rock era. As a recording artist, Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, enjoyed a run of popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the words of former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, as quoted in a Melody Maker interview appearing on the Web site of the Rock and Roll Journal, Paul was “the man who started everything. He's just a genius.”
Began on Harmonica
Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. His family shortened their German name, awkward for English speakers, to Polfuss early in his childhood. His parents, George and Evelyn, lived in an apartment next to his father's auto mechanic's shop. When Paul was eight, a local construction worker gave him a harmonica, which he liked immediately. Soon he was playing in school talent contests. Formal piano lessons went nowhere, but Paul had a knack for entertaining people; he began playing the harmonica on the streets and later added a guitar that he bought for five dollars, earned by picking bugs off potato plants. By the time he was 12, he was taking in $30 in tips every week. He was also an avid electronics experimenter, building a crystal radio when he was nine.
It was hearing guitarists like Eddie Lang on the radio that inspired Paul to take up the instrument, and later he would emulate guitarist Django Reinhardt and other jazz musicians. But his first influences came from country music, in the form of a guitarist named Pie Plant Pete, who performed on the Saturday Night Barn Dance program that was broadcast on Chicago radio station WLS. Pie Plant Pete gave Paul some pointers when he appeared in person in Waukesha, and Paul began to land jobs at service clubs, fraternal organizations, and summer concerts around Waukesha. His high school education was doomed, and he dropped out to pursue music full-time. When he played at Waukesha's Cutler Park, he was frustrated by the limited volume of his acoustic guitar and experimented with using a phonograph needle wedged into the instrument as an electric pickup, attached to a wire plugged into a radio at the other end.
Dubbed “Rhubarb Red” for his red hair, Paul began performing in country bands such as Rube Tronson's Cowboys, traveling as far afield as St. Louis. He and local guitarist Sunny Joe Wolverton formed a duet called Sunny Joe and Rhubarb Red. They headed for Chicago to seek out the abundant performing opportunities at the city's Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, and after that world's fair ended, he stayed on in Chicago and snared a pair of radio shows: on station WJJD in the morning he was Rhubarb Red, playing country music, and then he moved over to WIND, playing jazz and using the new name of Les Paul. He also performed around Chicago in a jazz trio that included Jim Atkins, brother of his future collaborator Chet Atkins, and Ernie Newton.
In 1939 this trio took a major step forward when they were signed to perform with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, an orchestra with a show broadcast nationally on NBC radio from New York. Paul played electric guitar in the band. The instrument had appeared in a few jazz and Western swing bands, but in the more conservative Waring group it was unusual enough to stir protests from listeners. Paul flipped a coin to decide whether he should stick to his instincts, and the coin apparently answered in the affirmative. He returned to Chicago to perform with the Ben Bernie big band but continued to spend time in New York as well.
Sought Sustained Guitar Sound
Ever since he had started to play the electric guitar, Paul had dreamed of a different sound than the instrument had produced thus far. Electric guitars of the 1930s tended to produce short blasts of sound, actuated by the player's plucking of the strings and then decaying in much the same way an acoustic guitar chord would. As he played in large dance halls, Paul experimented with ways of creating a more sustained sound. He realized that the sound decayed partly because it was diffused by the soundbox, so he tried filling in the hollow body of the guitar. “I chucked rags in it. I poured it full of plaster of Paris. I tried everything with the guitar to try to get it to not feed back and not sound like an acoustical box,” he told Jim O'Donnell of the Rock and Roll Journal. The plaster of Paris idea seemed promising but resulted in an unacceptably heavy guitar. He began working on further refinements during off hours at an Epiphone guitar factory on 14th Street in New York City, while taking time off after an accident in which he received a severe electric shock from a radio transmitter.
Finally, in 1941 Paul constructed a guitar he called the Log, made from a solid four-by-four piece of wood. He noted with satisfaction that he could plug the guitar into an amplifier, pluck a string, go out for a meal, return to his workshop, and hear the note still sounding. Paul is often recognized as the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar. The claim is difficult to evaluate, for guitars were evolving rapidly at the time, and other inventors were pursuing similar paths; the Rickenbacker company had manufactured a solid electric lap steel guitar as early as 1934. But Paul's Log, onto which he soon glued two wings from another Epiphone guitar to make it look more guitar-like, was undoubtedly a major step in the development of the modern electric guitar. Moving to Los Angeles in 1943, Paul quickly attracted the attention of other guitar designers such as Leo Fender.
Paul's Log was so far ahead of its time, in fact, that his first attempts to market the guitar came to nothing. Executives at Gibson Guitars to whom he showed his project in 1945 or 1946 derided it as a broomstick with a pickup. Paul shelved the guitar temporarily and turned to production work, building a home studio in his garage (using a Cadillac flywheel as a recording lathe) at the urging of singer Bing Crosby, after the two worked together on the recording “It's Been a Long, Long Time.” Paul produced songs for other artists who were part of the rapidly growing Los Angeles recording industry, which was oriented toward vocals with instrumental accompaniment rather than the old big bands. He also began to make instrumental electric guitar recordings himself and to experiment with the new technology of tape recordings that had been perfected by the American and German militaries during the war.
In 1947 one of these recordings led to Paul's second breakthrough. Performing an obscure Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart composition called “Lover,” he recorded eight parts separately (using records in his first attempts, not tape) performing over previously recorded tracks in layers until he had created the finished recording—which required 500 attempts before Paul was satisfied. The new “Les Paul sound” caught on fast, and Paul had hits as a performer on the Capitol label with “Brazil,” “Goofus,” “Nola,” “Little Rock Getaway,” and other single releases that marked the first known uses of the overdubbing technique. In 1948 he was injured again in an automobile crash in Oklahoma; for the rest of his life, seven screws held his right arm at an angle that allowed him to play the guitar.
Recorded Duo Hits with Wife
After his recovery, Paul married Colleen Summer, a singer who had worked with the band of Western star Gene Autry. He renamed her Mary Ford for professional purposes, and the two went back into the studio at Capitol. By now Paul had adapted magnetic tape to his multiple-source recording technique, and true multitrack recording was born in such Les Paul and Mary Ford hits as “How High the Moon,” which sold a reported 1.5 million copies, and their biggest hit, 1953's “Vaya con Dios,” a number one record for nine consecutive weeks. Paul also introduced such now-commonplace effects as reverb and phase shifting in these sessions. Paul and Ford raised an adopted daughter, Colleen, and a biological son, Robert, before their divorce in 1964.
Paul's inventions became standard industry equipment in the 1950s. His solid-body electric guitar became the subject of intense new interest from Gibson after the rival Fender company introduced its Broadcaster model in 1951, and Gibson worked with Paul (the exact nature of his contributions is a matter of debate) to develop a Les Paul model that he played exclusively. The Les Paul and its Fender competitors became fundamental to the sound of rock and roll music as it emerged in the mid-1950s and developed over the rest of the century. Among the Les Paul's famous players were Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Slash, who conceded that when he acquired his first Les Paul he did not know anything about the man for whom it was named. Ironically, the new music Paul helped make possible put an end to his own career as a hitmaker; the last Les Paul and Mary Ford recording to reach top chart levels was “Hummingbird,” in 1955, although they recorded several LPs for Capitol in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Health problems, including arthritis, coronary difficulties, and a ruptured eardrum suffered while rough-housing with a friend in 1969 plagued Paul in the 1960s and 1970s, but his creativity was undiminished. In the late 1960s Paul anticipated synthesizer-guitar hybrids by decades with his never-marketed Paulverizer, a guitar that could control prerecorded sounds on tape, and he recorded several solo LPs in the late 1960s. he returned to his country roots in 1976 with the RCA label album Chester & Lester, a collaboration with Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins, another star who owed much of the basic vocabulary of his music to Paul's innovations.
In 1984 Paul began appearing weekly at the club Fat Tuesday's in New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood, and he experienced a renewal of attention paid to both his technical and musical contributions. In 1988 the Cinemax cable television network broadcast a Paul tribute concert held at New York's Majestic Theater, featuring guests such as B.B. King, Stanley Jordan, and Eddie Van Halen, and a 1991 four-CD retrospective showcased Paul's skills as a guitarist. A reissued version of “Nola” became a number one hit in China. In 1995 Paul's weekly engagement moved to the Iridium club, and now in his nineties, he has continued to perform regularly in New York. In 2007 he was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush.
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Shaughnessy, Mary Alice, Les Paul: An American Original, Morrow, 1993.
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“Guitarist Les Paul Receives 2007 National Medal of Arts,” Modern Guitars, http://www.modernguitars.com/archives/004004.html (January 23, 2008).
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Les Paul, 1915–2009, American guitarist and inventor, b. Waukesha, Wis., as Lester William Polsfuss (later Polfuss). He began playing country music at 14, later switched to jazz, and started his own trio in 1936. Considered one of the finest jazz guitarists, he remains famous for his amazing versatility. Dissatisfied with the sound of available instruments, Paul invented (1941) a solid-body electric guitar which, marketed (1952) by Gibson, was extremely important in the development of rock music and was played by many of its greatest stars. Several versions of his guitars are still manufactured. Paul also created techniques in his home studio that allowed him to overdub numerous tracks, producing the distinctive sound of Les Paul and Mary Ford (his wife) in such 1950s hits as
"Vaya Con Dios"
"How High the Moon."
The multitrack recording originated by Paul has since been widely used to make popular recordings. He also invented the eight-track tape recorder, which initiated the modern recording era, and made important innovations in reverb and other areas of studio methodology. Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
See M. Cochran, Les Paul: In His Own Words (2008); R. Lawrence, The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy: 1915–1963 and The Modern Years of the Les Paul Legacy: 1968–2008 (both: 2008).