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Les Paul: Sound of a Century

Published: 6/9/2012

 Les Paul, ca. January 1947 (Wikimedia Commons/William P. Gottlieb)

Les Paul, circa January 1947 (Wikimedia Commons / William P. Gottlieb)

Born June 9, 1915, Les Paul – guitarist, inventor and innovator – would play a big part in shaping the sound of the 20th century. To commemorate Paul's birthday, we bring you 15 facts about his life and career.

1. Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wis., Paul was interested in music from an early age. He was fascinated by the mechanism that made his mother's player piano work, began playing the harmonica at 8, and later took up banjo and guitar. The desire to play guitar and harmonica at the same time led to Paul's 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 and New York, becoming a steady presence on radio airwaves. Inspired by jazz guitarist 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, Paul 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. Paul's first breakthrough in creating the solid body electric guitar came in 1941 with a device he called "The Log" – a maple 4-by-4 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 Paul moved to Hollywood, where he would introduce Bing Crosby to his modified instruments. World War II briefly interrupted his experiments. After being drafted into the Army, Paul served in the Armed Forces Radio Service and performed with the Andrew Sisters.

8. When the war ended, Paul returned to Hollywood and began 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, better known as Mary Ford. Around this same time, Bing Crosby introduced 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 Paul pioneered, he could now make his guitar sound like a full orchestra. Ford, meanwhile, could provide her own harmonizing back-up vocals. "Close micing" – another technique Paul pioneered – would also allow Ford's 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. Paul and Ford would sell more than two million records, with big hits including "Vaya Con Dios," "How High the Moon" and "Mockin' Bird Hill."

11. Paul and Ford also landed their own television show starting in 1953 and would perform at the White House for President Eisenhower.

12. The advent of rock 'n' roll effectively wiped out Ford and Paul's recording career, and the couple underwent an acrimonious divorce in 1962. Paul hung up his guitar for a number of years thereafter; Ford died in 1977.

13. In the 1960s British guitarists began discovering the hard rock potential of Gibson Les Paul guitars. 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 U.S. tour with a 1959 sunburst model. A couple of 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. Paul enjoyed a career resurgence beginning in 1976 when he released an instrumental country-jazz album with Chet Atkins called Chester and Lester. At 90 Paul won two Grammy Awards for the compilation album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He continued playing right up until his death Aug. 13, 2009, at the age of 94.

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