Born on this day in 1915, guitarist and inventor Les Paul
would play a big part in shaping the sound of the 20th century. To commemorate his birthday, we bring you 15 facts about his life and career.
Les Paul, ca. January 1947 (Wikimedia Commons/William P. Gottlieb)
1. He was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin with the given name Lester William Polsfuss. He first began playing music at age 8 when he took up the harmonica. Paul was also fascinated by the mechanism that made his mother’s player piano work. Later, he took up the banjo and the guitar. Wanting to play guitar and harmonica at the same time led to his first musical invention – a neck worn harmonica holder that’s still in use today.
2. By the time he was a teenager, Paul was playing semi-professionally, backing country bands like Rube Tronson’s Texas Cowboys. As a solo artist, he went by the names Rhubarb Red and Red Hot Red and played at dancehalls and drive-in movie theatres. Wishing to generate more sound from his guitar, he rigged a taped phonograph needle to the instrument and ran it through a radio speaker, his first experiment with amplification.
3. After dropping out of high school in the 1930s, he moved first to St. Louis, then Chicago, then New York, and became a steady presence on radio airwaves. Inspired by Django Reinhardt, Paul started moving away from country music and exploring jazz.
4. With bassist Ernie Newton and rhythm guitarist Jimmy Atkins (older half-brother of Chet Atkins), Paul formed The Les Paul Trio. In Harlem he would often jam with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum.
5. Never satisfied with the way his hollow body electric guitar sounded, he began stuffing towels in the f-holes in order to reduce feedback. In 1940 he was almost fatally electrocuted while experimenting with the electric wiring of his guitar.
6. His first breakthrough in creating the solid body electric guitar came in 1941 with a device he called “The Log” – a maple 4x4 with a bridge and pickup attached to an Epiphone hollow body (it took 10 years for him to convince Gibson to produce a solid body guitar based on his design, a step Gibson took only after seeing the success of the Fender Telecaster).
7. That same year saw Paul move to Hollywood, where he would introduce Bing Crosby to his modified instruments. WWII briefly interrupted his experiments when Paul was drafted into the Army. He served in the Armed Forces Radio Service and performed with the Andrew Sisters.
8. When the war ended, Paul returned to Hollywood and started building a home recording studio. His early pioneering of multi-track recording on acetate discs led to top 10 hits with instrumentals like “Nola” and “Meet Mr. Callaghan.”
9. On the recommendation of Gene Autry, he paired with singer Iris Colleen Summers, who changed her name to Mary Ford. Around this same time, Bing Crosby introduced Les Paul to a new recording device that used magnetic tape instead of acetate discs. The new tape recorder made multi-tracking even easier, and would provide the basis for a number of Paul-Ford hits. With the technology and techniques Les Paul pioneered, he could now make his guitar sound like a full orchestra while Mary Ford could provide her own harmonizing back-up vocals. ‘Close micing’ – another technique Paul pioneered – would also allow her voice to sound fuller and more intimate.
10. Combining new technology with jazz standards led the two to produce a run of 22 gold records for Capitol Records. They would sell more than two million records, with big hits including “Vaya Con Dios,” “How High the Moon” and “Mockin’ Bird Hill.”
11. Les Paul and Mary Ford also landed their own TV show starting in 1953 and would perform at the White House for President Eisenhower.
12. The advent of rock 'n' roll effectively wiped out Mary Ford and Les Paul’s recording career. The couple would undergo an acrimonious divorce in 1962. Les Paul hung up his guitar for a number of years thereafter. Mary Ford died in 1977.
13. Beginning in the '60s, British guitarists began discovering the hard rock potential of Gibson Les Paul guitars made in the 1950s. The instruments were suitable for such music in part because of their propensity to distort when played at high volume. Keith Richards was the first, returning from The Rolling Stones’ 1964 American tour with a 1959 sunburst model. A couple years later, Eric Clapton recorded with one. Soon, Mick Taylor, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page began using Les Paul guitars and the demand shot up exponentially.
14. Today, an original 1959 Gibson Les Paul can sell for as much as $750,000.
15. Les Paul enjoyed a career resurgence beginning in 1976 when he released an instrumental country-jazz album with Chet Atkins called Chester and Lester. At age 90, Les Paul won two Grammy Awards for the compilation album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He continued playing right up until his death in 2009 at the age of 94.
Originally published June 2011