Remembering Les Paul
June 9, 1915 – August 12, 2009
The Making of a Music Pioneer
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Lester William Polsfuss (June 9, 1915 – August 12, 2009) known as Les Paul was an American jazz and country guitarist, songwriter and inventor. He was a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar which “made the sound of rock and roll possible”. He is credited with many recording innovations. Although he was not the first to use the technique, his early experiments with overdubbing (also known as sound on sound), delay effects such as tape delay, phasing effects and multi track recording were among the first to attract widespread attention.
His innovative talents extended into his playing style, including licks, trills, cording sequences, fretting techniques and timing, which set him apart from his contemporaries and inspired many guitarists of the present day. He recorded with his wife Mary Ford in the 1950s, and they sold millions of records.
While living in Wisconsin, he first became interested in music at age eight, when he began playing the harmonica. After an attempt at learning the banjo, he began to play the guitar. It was during this time that he invented a neck-worn harmonica holder, which allowed him to play the harmonica hands-free while accompanying himself on the guitar. Paul’s device is still manufactured using his basic design. By age thirteen, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music singer, guitarist and harmonica player. While playing at the Waukesha area drive-ins and roadhouses, Paul began his first experiment with sound. Wanting to make himself heard by more people at the local venues, he wired a phonograph needle to a radio speaker, using that to amplify his acoustic guitar. At age seventeen, Paul played with Rube Tronson’s Texas Cowboys, and soon after he dropped out of high school to join Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri, on KMOX.
Paul migrated to Chicago in 1934, where he continued to perform on radio. His first two records were released in 1936. One was credited to “Rhubarb Red”, Paul’s hillbilly alter ego, and the other was as an accompanist for blues-artist Georgia White. It was during this time that he began playing jazz and adopted his stage name.
Paul’s jazz-guitar style was strongly influenced by the music of Django Reinhardt, whom he greatly admired. Following World War II, Paul sought out and befriended Reinhardt. After Reinhardt’s death in 1953, Paul furnished his headstone One of Paul’s prize possessions was a Selmer Maccaferri acoustic guitar given to him by Reinhardt’s widow.
Paul formed a trio in 1937 with singer/rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins (older half-brother of guitarist Chet Atkins) and bassist/percussionist Ernie “Darius” Newton. They left Chicago for New York in 1939, landing a featured spot with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians radio show. Chet Atkins later wrote that his brother, home on a family visit, presented the younger Atkins with an expensive Gibson arch-top guitar that had been given to Jim Atkins by Les Paul. Chet recalled that it was the first professional-quality instrument he ever owned.
Paul was dissatisfied with acoustic-electric guitars and began experimenting at his apartment in Queens, NY with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created several versions of “The Log”, which was nothing more than a length of common 4×4 lumber with a bridge, guitar neck and pickup attached. For the sake of appearance, he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar, sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body. These instruments were constantly being improved and modified over the years, and Paul continued to use them in his recordings long after the development of his eponymous Gibson model.
While experimenting in his apartment in 1940, Paul nearly succumbed to electrocution. During two years of recuperation, he relocated to Hollywood, supporting himself by producing radio music and forming a new trio. He was drafted into the US Army shortly after the beginning of World War II, where he served in the Armed Forces Network, backing such artists as Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and performing in his own right.
As a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 1944. The recording, still available as Jazz at the Philharmonic- the first concert- shows Paul at the top of his game, both in his solid four to the bar comping in the style of Freddie Green and for the originality of his solo lines. Paul’s solo on ‘Blues’ is an astonishing tour de force and represents a memorable contest between himself and Nat ‘King’ Cole. Much later in his career, Paul declared that he had been the victor and that this had been conceded by Cole. His solo on Body and Soul is a fine demonstration both of his admiration for and emulation of the playing of Django Reinhardt, as well as his development of some very original lines.
Also that year, Paul’s trio appeared on Bing Crosby’s radio show. Crosby went on to sponsor Paul’s recording experiments. The two also recorded together several times, including a 1945 number-one hit, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” In addition to backing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters and other artists, Paul’s trio also recorded a few albums of their own on the Decca label in the late 1940s.
In January 1948, Paul shattered his right arm and elbow in a near-fatal automobile accident on an icy Route 66 just west of Davenport, Oklahoma. Mary Ford was driving the Buick convertible, which rolled several times down a creekbed; they were on their way back from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after performing at the opening of a restaurant owned by Paul’s father. Doctors at Oklahoma City’s Wesley Presbyterian Hospital told him that they could not rebuild his elbow so that he would regain movement; his arm would remain permanently in whatever position they placed it in. Their other option was amputation. Paul instructed surgeons, brought in from Los Angeles, to set his arm at an angle—just under 90 degrees—that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him nearly a year and a half to recover.
The Gibson Les Paul, one of the world’s most popular electric guitars, was named after the man who invented it. Paul’s innovative guitar, “The Log”, built after-hours in the Epiphone guitar factory in 1940, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. Adolph Rickenbacker had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 1930s and Leo Fender also independently created his own in 1946. Although Paul approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with his idea of a solid body electric guitar, they showed no interest until Fender began marketing its Esquire which later became known as the Telecaster models.
The arrangement persisted until 1961, when declining sales prompted Gibson to change the design without Paul’s knowledge, creating a much thinner, lighter and more aggressive-looking instrument with two cutaway “horns” instead of one. Paul said he first saw the “new” Gibson Les Paul in a music-store window, and disliked it. Although his contract required him to pose with the guitar, he said it was not “his” instrument and asked Gibson to remove his name from the headstock. Others claimed that Paul ended his endorsement contract with Gibson during his divorce to avoid having his wife get his endorsement money. Gibson renamed the guitar “Gibson SG”, which stands for “Solid Guitar”, and it also became one of the company’s best sellers.
The original Gibson Les Paul-guitar design regained popularity when Eric Clapton began playing the instrument a few years later, although he also played an SG and an ES-335. Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson and endorsed the original Gibson Les Paul guitar from that point onwards. His personal Gibson Les Pauls were much modified by him—Paul always used his own self-wound pickups and customized methods of switching between pickups on his guitars. To this day, various models of Gibson Les Paul guitars are used all over the world by both novice and professional guitarists. A less-expensive version of the Gibson Les Paul guitar is also manufactured for Gibson’s lower-priced Epiphone brand.
Paul had never been happy with the way his records sounded. During a post-recording session talk with Bing Crosby, the crooner suggested Paul try building his own recording studio so he might be able to get the sound he wanted. At first Paul discounted the idea only to give it a few more minutes thought before deciding Crosby was right. Paul started his own studio in the garage of his home on Hollywood’s North Curson Street. The studio drew many other famous vocalists and musicians who wanted the benefit of Paul’s expertise. The home and studio are still standing, but both had been moved to Pasadena at some point after Paul no longer owned the home.
In 1948, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul’s garage, entitled “Lover (When You’re Near Me)”, which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence “double-fast” when played back at normal speed for the master. (“Brazil”, similarly recorded, was the B-side.) This was the first time that Les Paul used multitracking in a recording (Paul had been shopping his multi-tracking technique, unsuccessfully, since the 30’s. Much to his dismay, Sidney Bechet used it in 1941 to play half a dozen instruments on “Sheik of Araby”). These recordings were made not with magnetic tape, but with acetate discs. Paul would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. He built the multitrack recording with overlaid tracks, rather than parallel ones as he did later. By the time he had a result he was satisfied with, he had discarded some five hundred recording disks.
Paul even built his own disc-cutter assembly, based on automobile parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the acetate-disk setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he later began using magnetic tape, the major change was that he could take his recording rig on tour with him, even making episodes for his fifteen-minute radio show in his hotel room. He later worked with Ross Snyder in the design of the first eight-track recording deck built for him by Ampex for his home studio.
Within a short time, Crosby had hired Mullin to record and produce his radio shows and master his studio recordings on tape, and he invested US$50,000 in a Northern California electronics firm, Ampex. With Crosby’s backing, Mullin and Ampex created the Ampex Model 200, the world’s first commercially produced reel-to-reel audio tape recorder. Crosby gave Les Paul the second Model 200 to be produced. Using this machine, Paul placed an additional playback head, located before the conventional erase/record/playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track. This was a mono tape recorder with just one track across the entire width of quarter-inch tape; thus, the recording was “destructive” in the sense that the original recording was permanently replaced with the new, mixed recording.
Paul’s re-invention of the Ampex 200 inspired Ampex to develop two-track and three-track recorders, which allowed him to record as many tracks on one tape without erasing previous takes. These machines were the backbone of professional recording, radio and television studios in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1954, Paul continued to develop this technology by commissioning Ampex to build the first eight-track tape recorder, at his expense. His design became known as “Sel-Sync” (Selective Synchronization), in which specially modified electronics could either record or play back from the record head, which was not optimized for playback but was acceptable for the purposes of recording an “overdub” (OD) in sync with the original recording. This is the core technology behind multitrack recording.
Paul met country-western singer Colleen Summers in 1945. They began working together in 1948, at which time she adopted the stage name Mary Ford. They were married in 1949. The couple’s hits included “How High the Moon”, “Bye Bye Blues”, “Song in Blue”, “Don’cha Hear Them Bells”, “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”, and “Vaya con Dios”. These songs featured Ford harmonizing with herself.
Like Crosby, Paul and Ford used the now-ubiquitous recording technique known as close miking, where the microphone is less than 6 inches (15 cm) from the singer’s mouth. This produces a more-intimate, less-reverberant sound than is heard when a singer is 1 foot (30 cm) or more from the microphone. When implemented using a cardioid-patterned microphone, it emphasizes low-frequency sounds in the voice due to a cardioid microphone’s proximity effect and can give a more relaxed feel because the performer isn’t working so hard. The result is a singing style which diverged strongly from unamplified theater-style singing, as might be heard in musical comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1965, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally. He and Ford had divorced in December 1962, as she could no longer cope with the traveling lifestyle their act required of them. Paul’s most-recognizable recordings from then through the mid-1970s were an album for London Records/Phase 4 Stereo, Les Paul Now (1968), on which he updated some of his earlier hits; and, backed by some of Nashville’s celebrated studio musicians, a meld of jazz and country improvisation with fellow guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester (1976), for RCA Victor.
By the late 1980s, Paul had returned to active live performance, continuing into his 80s even though he often found it painful to play the guitar because of arthritis in his hands. In 2006, at age 90, he won two Grammys at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He also performed every Monday night, accompanied by a trio which included guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Paul Nowinksi (and later, Nicki Parrott) and pianist John Colianni, originally at Fat Tuesdays, and later at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway in the Times Square area of New York City.
On August 12, 2009, Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York. His family and friends were by his side. Paul is survived by his four children and his companion Arlene Palmer. His attorney told the media Paul had been “in and out of the hospital” because of illness. His last concert took place a few weeks before his death.
Upon learning of his death many artists and musicians paid tribute by publicly expressing their sorrow. After learning of Paul’s death, former Guns N’ Roses and current Velvet Revolver guitarist Slash called him “vibrant and full of positive energy.”, while Richie Sambora, lead guitarist of Bon Jovi, referred to him as “revolutionary in the music business”. U2 guitarist The Edge said, “His legacy as a musician and inventor will live on and his influence on rock and roll will never be forgotten.”