By Claudia Luther
August 14, 2009
Les Paul, the virtuoso guitarist, entertainer and relentless innovator whose drive to produce the sounds he wanted from his recordings and instruments helped pave the way for rock ‘n’ roll, died today. He was 94.
Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in New York state, said a spokesperson for the Gibson Guitar Co. He had been in failing health for some time.
Paul was popularly known for a series of hit songs recorded in the 1950s with his wife, singer Mary Ford, including “How High the Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios.”
One of the finest pickers on the American music scene, Paul was often cited as a major influence on other guitarists, including Chet Atkins, who called him “one of my idols.”
But for many other music fans, it was Paul’s innovations that will ensure his legacy. They include an early electric guitar as well as new ways to create multiple tracks and echo effects for recordings, which he used in his recordings with Ford and which were later were broadly adopted by other musicians.
“When most people think of the electric guitar, they think of Les Paul,” said Dan Del Fiorentino, historian for the National Assn. of Music Merchants, a trade group for the music-products industry. “He wasn’t the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, but he certainly made it famous.”
“Without him, it’s hard to imagine how rock ‘n’ roll would be played today,” the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, said when Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 for his early influence on rock.
Ironically, the onset of rock ‘n’ roll — with its heavy emphasis on the electric guitar — ended Paul’s and his wife’s prominence on the music scene. After they divorced in the mid-1960s, Paul continued to record, earning a Grammy in 1976 for “Chester and Lester,” an instrumental album recorded with Atkins.
And in 1984, when Paul was nearing 70, he returned to the stage, appearing in clubs in New York City. He was joined in these weekly appearances by a parade of famous musicians, including Keith Richards, Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney, who told Les Paul that when the Beatles started out, they would play Paul-Ford hits in their gigs.
In 2005, as he was turning 90, Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which said “his innovations led to his first solid-body electric guitar in 1941″ and also recognized him for pioneering techniques “that transformed music-recording technology.”
Many inventors and musicians were trying to figure out how to amplify a guitar as early as the 1920s, including George Beauchamp, whose “Frying Pan” is considered the first real solid-body electric guitar, Doc Kauffman and Adolph Rickenbacker.
Paul was tinkering with his own crude version of an amplified guitar as a teenager. His goal was simply to be better heard on gigs at the local barbecue restaurant in Waukesha, Wis., where he played as Red Hot Red, the Wizard of Waukesha.
To amplify the sound, he tried using a phonograph needle, a telephone mouthpiece and a radio speaker. The sound got stronger but, as he told Rick Landers for Modern Guitar magazine in 2005, “I ran smack into the problem of feedback.” He realized that the acoustic guitar’s hollow body — which was designed to reverberate the sound of the strings and amplify the sound — probably wasn’t needed if the instrument was hooked up to power.
He tried filling his guitar with socks and shirts and even plaster of Paris, which caused other problems. Years later, he tried attaching electronic pickups and strings to a 4-by-4-inch piece of pine about 18 inches long, which worked well enough but didn’t have the graceful look of a guitar. So he sliced a regular guitar in half lengthwise and bolted it to the wood, dubbing the contraption “The Log.”
The Log gave Paul the sustained note he was seeking — he said he could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding.
Among the other important figures in the development of the electric guitar was Leo Fender, an engineer. In 1951, Fender began mass-producing the solid-body Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster), the first practical solid-body electric guitar and the instrument that would soon revolutionize the sound of popular music.
The famed guitar company Gibson also designed a solid-body guitar and, in 1952, released an instrument that was endorsed by Paul, who had by then made a name for himself in music. Various models of Gibson Les Pauls are still in production today.
Electrifying the guitar took the instrument from one used for background rhythm to a driving force in country music, blues, R&B and rock. Even the feedback Paul tried so hard to eliminate became a way for guitarists to create new effects that shocked the generation that had grown up on Paul and Ford’s sweet and harmonic music. As Washington Post music writer Richard Harrington noted, the electric guitar “put the boom in the baby boom.” It has, as Monica M. Smith, project historian at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, wrote, “achieved iconic status as a symbol of American culture.”
Perhaps even more important than Paul’s role in the electric guitar were his recording innovations.
To get a fuller sound on some songs, Paul tinkered with one of the first tape recorders to figure out how he could record one track at the same time he was playing back another track. It was the beginning of multi-track recording and sound-on-sound — without which it would be hard to imagine most of modern recording.
“I’ll never understand why I chased sound all my life,” Paul told Marc Pachter in a 1997 interview for the Smithsonian Institution. “But I was there chasing it constantly, saying it’s got to have a little more of this and a little more of that.” He told The Times’ music critic Robert Hilburn that his inventions were “conveniences” designed “to help me get the sound I had in my head on record.”
After Paul linked up with singer-guitarist Ford in the 1940s, he found a way to get an echo and also overdub Ford’s voice and their two guitars, laying multiple layers on a recording.
The “new sound,” as Paul called it, allowed fresh renderings of songs like “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” “Bye, Bye, Blues,” “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” and “Tiger Rag,” as well as their biggest hits, “How High the Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios.” At one point, 13 consecutive Paul-Ford tunes sold more than half a million copies. The couple, who married in 1949, became so popular that from 1953 to 1960 they hosted a five-minute, five-day-a-week television show filmed in their home.
Together, they charted nine hits on the Billboard Top 100 from 1955 to 1961.
But once rock ‘n’ roll got going in the 1950s, and especially after Elvis Presley hit the scene, the duo dropped off the pop charts with a speed that left people in the music business stunned.
“It didn’t just taper off, the way it did with [Bing] Crosby and hundreds of other artists,” Dave Dexter, an A&R man for Capitol Records — the musical home of Paul and Ford — told Paul’s biographer, Mary Alice Shaughnessy. “It just absolutely stopped.”
Les Paul was born Lester William Polfuss on June 9, 1915, the younger son of George Polfuss, who owned a car repair service in Waukesha, and Evelyn Polfuss. The couple separated when Paul was 8.
Always curious and musical, Paul would as a child pump his mother’s upright player piano, punching holes on the piano roll to make new notes and taping over the holes if he didn’t like what came out.
By 9, he learned to play the harmonica by listening to blues and country artists on the radio. Not long after, he paid a few dollars for his first guitar from Sears, Roebuck.
By his late teens, Paul had dropped out of school and was on KMOX radio in St. Louis and then performing in Chicago. During the day, he would play country music using the name Rhubarb Red, and at night would jam in the jazz clubs with his new stage name, Les Paul.
In the late 1930s, he formed a trio with bassist Ernie Newton and Jimmy Atkins, a vocalist and rhythm guitarist who was the half-brother of Chet. It was with the Les Paul Trio that Paul made his way to New York City, where the group played for several years with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians on Waring’s radio program.
In off hours, Paul would go to Harlem nightclubs where he would sit in with such greats as pianist Art Tatum and guitarist Charlie Christian.
During World War II, Paul entertained the troops as part of the Armed Forces Radio Service. In 1944, he was a last-minute replacement for Nat “King” Cole’s guitarist Oscar Moore and played with other leading musicians at Norman Granz’s inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles.
He finally achieved his long-sought chance to work with Bing Crosby, backing the crooner on his NBC radio shows and, in 1945, recording “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” with Crosby — which quickly hit No. 1 on the charts.
Paul built his own sound studio in the garage of his Hollywood home, where he recorded many tunes, including the 1946 hit song “Rumors Are Flying” with the Andrew Sisters.
By then, Paul had linked up with singer Colleen Summers, whom he later gave the stage name Mary Ford.
In early 1948, a serious automobile accident badly injured his arm and interrupted his work.
As he slowly resumed performing, Paul drew Ford into his act and, by the early 1950s, the couple had mastered the sound that opened the door to their huge popularity. “How High the Moon,” which was made with a dozen overdubs, stayed at the top of the charts for more than two months in 1951.
After their divorce in 1964, Paul recorded two albums with Chet Atkins, including “Chester and Lester.”
Ford died in 1977.
Following heart bypass surgery in the early 1980s, Paul began his weekly appearances at Fat Tuesdays in Manhattan and, after it closed, at the Iridium.
Though Paul had hearing aids in both ears and his hands were so arthritic that he could barely hold a pick, he still played with the sensitivity and sweetness that had made him famous — although, as he wryly commented, he didn’t use as many notes.
Paul’s first new studio album since 1978 — a rock-oriented collection featuring him playing with Steve Miller, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Sting and others — was released in 2005.Paul’s original Log is housed at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville; a replica produced by Gibson is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Paul is survived by his three sons, Lester (Rus), Gene and Robert; his daughter, Colleen Wess; longtime friend Arlene Palmer; five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
A private funeral service will be held in New York. A service in Waukesha will be announced at a later date, as will public memorial tributes.
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Tags: Adolph Rickenbacker, Ahmet Ertegun, Art Tatum, Atlantic Records, Charlie Christian, Chet Atkins, Dan Del Fiorentino, Doc Kauffman, George Beauchamp, Gibson Guitar Co, How High Is The Moon, Keith Richards, Les Paul, Mary Ford, Monica Smith, Nat King Cole, Oscar Moore, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Vaya Con Dios