Les Paul’s life-long career as guitarist, inventor and recording artist has made him a hallmark of the music industry worldwide. Les Paul was the pioneer of solid-body electric guitars which brought about –
…the sound of rock and roll possible. [I]
Lester William Polfus was born in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. When Paul was nine-years-old he built his first crystal radio and around that time began learning to play guitar. By the time he reached the age of 13, he was performing on a semi-professional basis as a country-music guitarist and began his career as an inventor of sound-related equipment and techniques.
In 1941, Les Paul built his first solid-body electric guitar and for ten years constantly improved on the model.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum website wrote:
It’s safe to say that rock and roll as we know it would not exist without his invention. … He also refined the technology of sound recording, developing revolutionary engineering techniques such as close miking, echo delay, overdubbing and multitracking. He also busied himself as a versatile bandleader and performer who could play jazz, country and pop. The guitar that bears his name – the Gibson Les Paul – is his crowning achievement. It grew out of his desire, as a musician and inventor, to create a stringed instrument that could make electronic sound without distorting. What he came up with, after almost a decade of work, was a solid bodied instrument – that is, one that didn’t have the deep, resonant chamber of an acoustic guitar. … He experimented with different designs until he had his non-vibrating guitar body, which he called “The Log.” Gibson Guitars initially turned him down, calling his invention “a broomstick with pickups” and pointing out that this meant guitarists would now have to carry around two instruments – one electric and one acoustic – which they viewed as prohibitively inconvenient. As a result, Paul was beaten to the marketplace by Leo Fender, whose Fender Broadcaster – the first mass-produced solidbody electric guitar – was introduced in 1948. That same year, however, Paul unveiled overdubbing, a breakthrough recording technique that would forever change music. Capitol Records released the Paul’s experimental eight-track recordings of “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” and “Brazil,” which he’d made in his garage workshop.
Paul’s career as a musician nearly came to an end in 1948, when he suffered near-fatal car accident in Oklahoma, skidding off a bridge into a river during a snowstorm. The guitarist shattered his right arm and elbow, and he also broke his back, ribs, nose and collarbone. He managed to salvage his career as a musician by instructing surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him a year and a half to recover. …
The list of musicians associated with the Gibson Les Paul include Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton,, Duane Allman, Mike Bloomfield, Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page. Paul is guitarist Steve Miller’s godfather. Jimi Hendrix consulted him about the construction of Electric Lady Studios. In a British periodical, Led Zeppelin’s Page once wrote of Paul, “He’s the man who started everything. He’s just a genius.” While sharing a stage with Paul, Eddie Van Halen once told him, “Without the things you’ve done, I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do.”
Over the ensuing decades Les Paul has remained active on all fronts. He recorded a Grammy-winning album of instrumental duets with Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester, in 1977. From the mid-Eighties through the mid-Nineties, he performed weekly at Fat Tuesday’s, a New York City jazz club. In 2005, at the age of 90, he released American Made/World Played, which featured guest spots from several of his most illustrious rock and roll disciples and won him a pair of Grammys.
Paul performed weekly – at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club – and indulged his inventor’s curiosity in a basement workshop at home in Mahwah, New Jersey up until his death on August 13, 2009.
Les Paul Trivia
– Les Paul was also an Honorary Board Member for Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free musical instruments and music instruction to children who couldn’t afford via school programs nationwide.
– Les Paul was the godfather of guitarist Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, and who received his first guitar lesson from his godfather.
– The Les Paul Trio: When Paul moved to New York in 1938, he became part of a trio that included Jim Atkins (older half-brother of Chet Atkins) and bassist/percussionist Ernie “Diarrhea” Newton. Paul moved to Hollywood in 1943 where he formed a new trio. When Oscar Moore couldn’t perform at the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles on July 2nd, 1944, Les Paul accompanied Nat King Cole and other artists. In the same year the Les Paul Trio appeared on the Bing Crosby radio show and got sponsorship from Mr. Crosby for Paul’s recording experiments. Les Paul also accompanied The Andrews Sisters from time to time and the trio recorded a few albums of their onw on the Decca label in the late 1940s.
– Le Paul did well designing guitars with Gibson Guitar Corporation (first solid-body electric guitar in 1939) and did well enough to sign a contract with the guitar company for his Gold Top Les Paul Gibson guitar, (You can get one for about $5,000) and also agreed in the contract never to be seen playing in public or photographed playing any other guitar besides a Gibson. When sales declined in the early 1960s. The guitar regained popularity when Eric Clapton began playing the Gibson Les Paul (he also played an SG and an ES-335), which allowed Les Paul to resume his relationship with Gibson, and endorsed the original Les Paul guitar. Paul’s personal Gibson was modified by him, and today the Gibson Les Paul in its various models are used all over the world. (See the video made by the The Next Level Guitar website at YouTube, demonstrating the difference between the Epiphany (cheap replica made in China) and the original Gibson Les Paul.)
– Much of Les Paul’s inventions and innovations were made in his garage, where also he had experimented with music and created the song that Capital Records released in 1948 – Lover (When You’re Near Me), in which Paul played eight different parts on his electric guitar, some recorded at half-speed and then when played at normal speed for the master recording it produced at double-fast speed. Paul built the multi-tracking that was used in that recording, not made with magnetic tape, but with acetate disks. In this way he could play one part on a track, another part on a track and they all came together on the master recording. Paul had his own disc-cutter assembly made from auto parts. He liked the flywheel from a Cadillac because of its weight and flatness. These were the days when his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs were developed. [II]
– Les Paul was the first to use the Ampex Model 200, the world’s first commercially-produced reel-to-reel audio tape recorder, seeing its potential of special effects, like echo, and a more stable useage for mulitrack recording, which Les Paul is considered the designer of.
– Revolutionary recordings were made in the 1950s accompanied by his wife, Mary Ford, who sang. The couple produced single hits like How High the Moon, Bye Bye Blues, The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise, and Vaya Con Dios that later was resurrected by singer-guitarist Freddy Fender.
– Like Bing Crosby, Paul and wife Mary used recording techniques like close miking, where the microphone is less than six inches from the singer’s mouth – less reverberation and more intimate. This was made possible by the cardoid-patterned microphone that emphasizes low-frequency sounds in the voice and gives a more relaxed feel so the performer doesn’t have to work so hard to sing.
– Les Paul hosted a 15-minute radio program called The Les Paul Show on NBC in 1950, which featured his trio (himself, Mary Ford, and rythym player Eddie Stapleton). Their recordings were from Les and Mary’s home with some humor added in. Several recordings of these shows have survived and old-time radio collectors have them. They also appeared on television during this time, with the same format, but not the trio – it was The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show and used Vaya Con Dios as their theme song. The couple divorced in December of 1964 because Mary could no longer deal with Les’s lifestyle even though he was in semi-retirement.
– In 2006, at the age of 90, he won two Grammys at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He also performed every Monday night, accompanied by a trio which included guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Nicki Parrott and pianist John Colianni at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway in New York City.
– A one-hour biographical documentary entiteled The Wizard of Waukesha was shown at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition from March 4th to March 21stin 1980, and later featured on PBS.
– Les Paul’s hometown, Waukesha, Wisconsin is planning a permanent exhibit to be called The Les Paul Experience.
– As a tribute to Les Paul’s 90th birthday in July of 2005, Carnegie Hall in New York City featured a concert. After Steve Miller, Peter Frampton, Jose Feliciano and other guitarists and vocalists performed, Les Paul was presented with a commemorative guitar from the Gibson Guitar Corporation.
– On November 15th, 2008, Les Paul received the American Music Masters award through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a tribute concert in the State Theater in Cleveland. Among those performers present were Duane Eddy, Eric Carmen, Lonnie Mack, Jennifer Batten, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Alannah Myles, Richie Sombora, The Ventures, andSlash.
A discography is available at Wikipedia.
Michelle Malkin wrote at her blog probably something that Les Paul would have appreciated – simple and to the point:
The guitar legend has passed away at 94. God bless him.
“Without Les Paul, we would not have rock and roll as we know it,” said Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “His inventions created the infrastructure for the music and his playing style will ripple through generations. He was truly an architect of rock and roll.” “Les Paul was truly a unique human being,” said Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs. “He was an artist who made his mark as a tremendously influential guitarist. He was also an inventor, the man responsible for the solid-body electric guitar and multi-track recording. Few people have accomplished as much as Les did in his legendary career. We will truly miss him.”
Further Reading and Linked Sources
The Many Lives of Les Paul, an interview by Ed Driscoll, Blog Critics.
50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul: Half a Century of the Greatest Electric Guitars by Tony Bacon; Backbeat Books, 2002.
The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy, 1915-1963 by Robb Lawrence; Backbeat Books, 1993.
Les Paul’s Career Timeline – American Masters, PBS.
Les Paul Obiturary – Les Paul, Guitar Legend, Dead at 94, Rolling Stone.
Rock Hall Issues Statement Regarding Les Paul’s Death – All About Jazz.
YouTube, Differences between the Gibson Les Paul and the Epiphany replica guitar.
[I] AP story, Guitar Hero Les Paul Ready for Rock Hall Tribute by Joe Milicia; Times Union, p. C8, November 10th, 2008.