Mary Ford became famous for her groundbreaking duets with musician and inventor Les Paul. On what would have been her 88th birthday, we look back at her life and singing career.
In this Nov. 5, 1951 file photo, Les Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, perform with their guitars. (AP Photo, file)
Born Iris Colleen Summers to a musical family headed by a Nazarene revival preacher in El Monte, California, Ford first began performing along with her six brothers and sisters on Pasadena’s first Christian radio station. In addition to singing, Ford also became a proficient guitarist.
She got her professional start (still then performing as Iris Summers) with Jimmy Wakely as one of the Sunshine girls. She also performed with Stuart Hamblin and Gene Autry, who was friendly with guitarist Les Paul.
In 1945 Paul was looking to team up with a vocalist for some songs he’d been working on using pioneering recording techniques. He’d considered his pal Bing Crosby, but worried that the album would then just turn into a Bing Crosby record and so settled on finding a female vocalist instead. It was his pal Gene Autry who recommended Summers.
“That phone call was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she told Cosmopolitan magazine in 1955. “I’d always considered Les Paul to be the greatest guitar player in the world.”
After an audition (when she’d shown up at his home studio, Les was mowing the lawn in his Army boots), Paul knew he had his singer. She and Paul agreed a shortened name would look better on marquees and so they picked ‘Mary Ford’ out of the phone book.
But their act was nearly cut short before it truly started. While traveling together to Paul’s hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, the pair was involved in a car accident on an icy Route 66 near Oklahoma City, crashing through a guardrail and plummeting into a frozen ditch. It was three hours before they were even found and the pair would spend the next 18 months recovering. Ford broke her pelvis and Paul’s right arm was shattered so badly one doctor suggested amputation.
The duet soon blossomed into a romance and Paul and Ford were married in 1949. Not long after, they appeared together on The Les Paul Show radio broadcast. At this time, Paul and Ford were experimenting with multi-track recording, which allowed Ford to harmonize with her own voice, a completely new idea at the time. Placing the microphone much closer to the singer’s mouth (the studio standard in the 1940s had been six inches at minimum) allowed for warmer, more relaxed, less brassy vocals.
Pairing these new recording techniques with breezily arranged jazz standards proved a commercial goldmine. Their first big hit would be a cover of “How High the Moon” which used an unheard-of 24 tracks of guitar and vocal overdubs. Starting in March of 1951, the single spent nine weeks at #1. Another single, “Vaya Con Dios”, spent eleven weeks atop the charts. More than twenty gold records would follow, giving them hits in countries as far-flung as Japan and Yugoslavia.
The pair hosted their own television show and toured relentlessly, including a gig at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and a White House performance for President Eisenhower the following year. But the constant travel, the pressures of raising two children and Les Paul’s studio obsession – which saw him spending more and more time trying to achieve that elusive perfect sound – were beginning to wear on their marriage.
The rise of rock 'n' roll wasn’t helping. As their record sales started going south, Paul and Mary tried to reach new audiences by doing different material – country tunes, Hawaiian tunes, Christmas songs – but by the early 1960s their popularity had greatly diminished and things were worse than ever on the home front. Not many details were made public about the root causes of their split – a 1963 Billboard article noted only that Ford had moved to California while Paul remained in New Jersey – but the couple’s acrimonious divorce wasn’t finalized until 1964, two years after they’d separated.
The wholesome image both had projected suffered as a result. Les Paul got dropped from his Gibson guitar deal and temporarily retired. Ford tried to launch a solo career, but found little success.
Back in Monrovia, California, Ford married a high school friend named Donald Hatfield. She occasionally performed with her sisters Eve and Carol Summers and her brother Bob Summers on guitar, releasing an album of gospel music in 1966 as the Millie Pace Trio under the Christian Faith Recordings label.
Mary Ford died of complications from diabetes on September 30, 1977. She was just 53 years old.
Originally published July 2011