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. Addresses: Home-- Mahwah, New Jersey.
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 (Chet'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 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.
by Calen D. Stone
Les Paul's Career
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.
Les Paul's 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.
- 10-inch format
- 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.
- Lover 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.
March 16, 2005: Paul was named to receive the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, March 16, 2005.
February 10, 2005: It was announced that Paul will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in recognition of his invention of the Gibson Les Paul guitar, a solid-body electric guitar that is considered the first modern electric guitar. His induction will take place at a ceremony held in Akron, Ohio, in May of 2005. The National Inventors Hall of Fame honors individuals, both living and dead, whose work has changed society and improved the way we live. Source: Forbes, www.forbes.com, April 7, 2005.
February 8, 2006: Paul won two Grammy Awards, including best pop instrumental performance for "Caravan," and best rock instrumental performance for "69 Freedom Special." Source: Grammy.com, http://grammy.com/GRAMMY_Awards/Annual_Show/48_nominees.aspx, February 9, 2006.
- 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.