Lester William Polsfuss (June 9, 1915 – August 12, 2009), known as Les Paul, was an American jazz, country and blues guitarist, songwriter, luthier and inventor. He was one of the pioneers 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 multitrack recording were among the first to attract widespread attention.
His innovative talents extended into his playing style, including licks, trills, chording 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.
Among his many honors, Paul is one of a handful of artists with a permanent, stand-alone exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is prominently named by the music museum on its website as an "architect" and a "key inductee" along with Sam Phillips and Alan Freed. Les Paul is the only person to be included in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss outside Milwaukee, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to George (1881-1949) and Evelyn (1888–1989) (née Stutz) Polsfuss. His family was of German ancestry. Paul's mother was related to the founders of Milwaukee's Valentin Blatz Brewing Company and the makers of the Stutz automobile. His parents divorced when he was a child. The Prussian family name was first simplified by his mother to Polfuss and then to Polfus, though Les Paul never legally changed his name. Before he took his stage name of Les Paul, he also used the stage names Red Hot Red and Rhubarb Red.
While living in Wisconsin, at about age eight, he began playing the harmonica. After an attempt at learning the piano, he began to play the guitar. It was during this time that he invented a neck-worn harmonica holder, which allowed him to play both sides of the harmonica hands-free while accompanying himself on the guitar. The 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 his guitar and connected it to a radio speaker, using that to amplify his acoustic guitar. As a teen Paul created his first solid body electric guitar using a 2-foot piece of rail from a nearby train line. At age seventeen, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys, and soon after he dropped out of high school to team up with Sunny Joe Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri, on KMOX.
Paul moved to Chicago in 1934, where he continued to perform on radio. He met pianist Art Tatum, whose playing influenced him to a career devoted to guitar rather than original plans of taking on the piano. His first two records were released in 1936, credited to "Rhubarb Red", Paul's hillbilly alter ego, He also served as an accompanist for blues-artist Georgia White for Decca. It was during this time that he began playing jazz and adopted the name of Les Paul.
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 1938, 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 archtop 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, New York with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created several versions of "The Log", which was a length of common 4x4 lumber with a bridge, guitar neck, strings 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. In 1945, Richard D. Bourgerie made an electric guitar pickup and amplifier for professional guitar player George Barnes. Bourgerie worked through World War II at Howard Radio Company making electronic equipment for the American military. Barnes showed the result to Les Paul, who then arranged for Bourgerie to have one made for him.
While experimenting in his apartment in 1941, 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 in 1943 shortly after the beginning of World War II, where he served in the Armed Forces Radio 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 recorded together several times, including a 1945 number-one hit, "It's Been a Long, Long Time." Paul's trio recorded a few albums of their own on the Decca label in the late 1940s. Paul was particularly enamored by the famous Andrews Sisters, who hired The Les Paul Trio as their opening act while they toured in 1946. Lou Levy, the sisters' manager and a music publishing giant of the big band era and beyond, once said, "Watching his fingers work was like watching a locomotive go." The trio's longtime conductor, Vic Schoen, said of Les, "You could always count on him to come up with something no one else had thought of," while Maxene Andrews once remembered, "It was wonderful having him perform with us. He'd tune into the passages we were singing and lightly play the melody, sometimes in harmony. We'd sing these fancy licks and he'd keep up with us note for note in exactly the same rhythm...almost contributing a fourth voice. But he never once took the attention away from what we were doing. He did everything he could to make us sound better." Two Decca recordings from 1946 pairing Paul with The Andrews Sisters ("Rumors Are Flying" and "It's a Pity to Say Goodnight") exist today to affirm such comments. Paul's many hits with wife Mary Ford recording her vocals in triplicate in the 1950s produced a sound eerily similar to the harmonious blend of The Andrews Sisters. As Les Paul biographer Mary Alice Shaughnessy noted of Paul's association with The Andrews Sisters, "Les welcomed the opportunity to study them in full flight."
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 plunged off the side of a railroad overpass and dropped 20 feet into a ravine; they were on their way back from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after visiting family. Doctors at Oklahoma City's Wesley Presbyterian Hospital told Paul that they could not rebuild his elbow. Their other option was amputation. Paul was flown to Los Angeles, where his arm was set at an angle—just under 90 degrees—that allowed 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 inspired by Paul’s “Log”.
Paul's innovative guitar, "The Log", built after-hours in the Epiphone guitar factory in 1940, a 4" × 4" chunk of pine with strings and a pickup, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. Paul Tutmarc of Audiovox Manufacturing Co. built a solid body electric bass in 1935 and Adolph Rickenbacker had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 1930s and Paul A. Bigsby had built one for Merle Travis in 1948 and Leo Fender also independently created his own (the Fender "Esquire," a single pickup model) in 1948. Although Paul approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with his idea of a solid body electric guitar in 1941, they showed no interest until Fender began marketing its Esquire which later had a second pick-up added and became known as the Broadcaster (Renamed Telecaster in 1952).
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. Problems with the strength of the body and neck made Paul dissatisfied with the new guitar. This, and a pending divorce from Mary Ford, led to Paul ending his endorsement and use of his name on Gibson guitars until 1966, by which time his divorce was completed. At Paul's request, 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 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 Les Paul guitar is manufactured for Gibson's Epiphone brand.
Paul continued to seek technical improvements, although they were not always successful commercially. For example, in 1962 Paul was issued US Patent No. 3,018,680, for a pickup in which the coil was physically attached to the strings. One of Paul's innovations became somewhat successful, unfortunately not to his benefit. In the mid-1940s he introduced an aluminum guitar with the tuning mechanisms below the bridge. As it had no headstock, only string attachments at the nut, it was the first "headless" guitar. Unfortunately Pauls guitar was sensitive to the heat from stage lights and would not keep tune. This style was further developed by others, most successfully Ned Steinberger.
In the 1940s Paul was not 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 famous vocalists and musicians who wanted the benefit of Paul's expertise. The home and studio were moved to Pasadena at some point after Paul no longer owned the home.
In 1949, Les Paul was given one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel audio tape recording decks by Crosby and went on to work with Ampex to create the eight track "Sel-Sync" machines for multitrack recording. 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 multitracking technique, unsuccessfully, since the '30s. Much to his dismay, Sidney Bechet used it in 1941 to play half a dozen instruments on "Sheik of Araby"). Paul's early recordings were made 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 used magnetic tape, 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 on the design of the first eight-track recording deck (built for him by Ampex for his home studio.)
Electronics engineer Jack Mullin had been assigned to a U.S. Army Signal Corps unit stationed in France during World War II. On a mission in Germany near the end of the war, he acquired and later shipped home a German Magnetophon (tape recorder) and fifty reels of I.G. Farben plastic recording tape. Back in the U.S., Mullin rebuilt and developed the machine with the intention of selling it to the film industry. He held a series of demonstrations which quickly became the talk of the American audio industry.
Within a short time, Crosby had hired Mullin to record and produce his radio shows and master his studio recordings on tape. Crosby 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.
Les Paul invented Sound on Sound recording using this machine by placing 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. He eventually enhanced this by using one tape machine to play back the original recording and a second to record the combined track. This preserved the original recording
Les Paul bought the first Ampex 8-track recorder in 1957. Rein Narma built a custom 8-channel mixing console for Les Paul. The mixing board included in-line equalization and vibrato effects He named the recorder "the octopus" and the mixing console "the monster". The name octopus was inspired by W. C. Fields who was the first person Les Paul played a multi-track recording to. Upon hearing the recording W. C. Fields said: 'My boy, you sound like an octopus."
Les Paul & Mary Ford
Paul met country-western singer Iris 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, and Les Paul's multiple guitars.
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 pressure-gradient (uni- or bi-directional) microphone, it emphasizes low-frequency sounds in the voice due to the 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, that was heard in musical comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.
Radio and television programs
Paul had hosted a fifteen-minute radio program, The Les Paul Show, on NBC Radio in 1950, featuring his trio (himself, Ford and rhythm player Eddie Stapleton) and his electronics, recorded from their home and with gentle humor between Paul and Ford bridging musical selections, some of which had already been successful on records, some of which anticipated the couple's recordings, and many of which presented re-interpretations of such jazz and pop selections as "In the Mood", "Little Rock Getaway", "Brazil" and "Tiger Rag". Over ten of these shows survive among old-time radio collectors today.
The show also appeared on television a few years later with the same format, but excluding the trio and retitled The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show (also known as Les Paul & Mary Ford at Home) with "Vaya Con Dios" as the theme song. Sponsored by Warner Lambert's Listerine mouthwash, it was aired on NBC Television during 1954-1955, and then syndicated until 1960. The show aired five times a day, five days a week for only five minutes (one or two songs) long, and therefore was used as a brief interlude or fill-in in programming schedules. Since Paul created the entire show himself, including audio and video, he maintained the original recordings and was in the process of restoring them to current quality standards until his death.
During his radio shows, Paul introduced the fictional "Les Paulverizer" device, which multiplies anything fed into it, such as a guitar sound or a voice. It was Paul's way of explaining how his single guitar could be multiplied to become a group of guitars. The device even became the subject of comedy, with Ford multiplying herself and her vacuum cleaner with it so she could finish the housework faster. Later, Paul created a real Les Paulverizer that he attached to his guitar. The invention allowed Paul to access pre-recorded layers of songs during live performances so he could replicate his recorded sound on stage.
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.
In 1987, Paul underwent heart surgery. He then returned to active live performance, continuing into his 90s 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 Nowinski (and later, Nicki Parrott) and guitarist Frank Vignola and for a few years, pianist John Colaianni. Originally Paul, Pallo and Nowinski performed at Fat Tuesdays, and later at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway in the Times Square area of New York City.
Les and his trio held court at the Iridium Jazz Club for many years, playing two sets every Monday night. Often, a wide array of other artists would appear and sit in with or sing in front of the trio. A tribute trio still plays the Monday dates.
Composer Richard Stein (1909–1992) sued Paul for plagiarism, charging that Paul's "Johnny (Is the Boy for Me)" was taken from Stein's 1937 song "Sanie cu zurgălăi" (Romanian for "Sleigh with Bells"). A 2000 cover version of "Johnny" by Belgian musical group Vaya Con Dios that credited Paul prompted another action by the Romanian Musical Performing and Mechanical Rights Society.
For many years Les Paul would sometimes surprise radio hosts Steve King and Johnnie Putman with a call to the "Life After Dark Show" on WGN (AM) in Chicago. These calls would take place in the wee hours of Tuesday morning following his long-running Monday evening show at the Iridium Jazz Club. Until they ended their show on WGN, Steve and Johnnie continued to honor Les on Tuesday Mornings at 2:35 AM with their segment "A Little More Les" drawing from around 30 hours of recorded conversations with Les.
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 manager told the media that Paul had several hospital stays over the previous few months. Paul's last concert took place a few weeks before his death.
Upon learning of his death many artists and popular musicians paid tribute by publicly expressing their sorrow. After learning of Paul's death, former Guns N' Roses 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."
On August 21, 2009, he was buried near Milwaukee in Waukesha, Wisconsin at Prairie Home Cemetery. Paul is buried next to his mother. The two are surrounded with a brief biography of Les. A stream of visitors from around the world visit the memorial. Like his funeral in New York on August 19, the burial was private, but earlier in the day a public memorial viewing of the closed casket was held in Milwaukee at Discovery World with 1,500 attendees who were offered free admission to the Les Paul House of Sound exhibit for the day.
Paul married Virginia Webb in 1938. They had two children, Lester Jr. (Rusty), born in 1941, and Gene, who was named after actor-songwriter Gene Lockhart, born in 1944, before divorcing in 1949. Later that year, Paul and Mary Ford (born Iris Colleen Summers) were married. They adopted a girl, Colleen, in 1958 and their son Robert (Bobby) was born the following year. They had also lost a child, who was born prematurely and died only four days old. Les Paul and Mary Ford divorced in 1963.
Paul was the instructor of rock guitarist Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, to whom Paul gave his first guitar lesson. Miller's parents were best man and matron of honor at Paul's 1949 wedding to Mary Ford.
Paul resided for many years in Mahwah, New Jersey.
In 1995 Paul established the Les Paul Foundation, which was designed to remain dormant until his passing. The mission of the Foundation is to honor and share the life, spirit and legacy of Les Paul by supporting music education, engineering and innovation as well as medical research.
Paul was also a prolific composer. Some of the songs he wrote were "Song in Blue", "Cryin'", "Hip-billy Boogie", "Suspicion", "Mandolino", "Magic Melody", "Don'cha Hear Them Bells", "The Kangaroo", "Big-Eyed Gal", "All I Need is You", "Mammy's Boogie", “Pacific Breeze”, “Mountain Railroad”, “Move Along, Baby (Don’t Waste My Time)”, "Dry My Tears", "Deep in the Blues", "I Don't Want You No More", "Doing the Town", "Les' Blues", "No Strings Attached", "Subterfuge", "Lament For Strings", "Five Alarm Fire", "You Can't Be Fit as a Fiddle (When You're Tight as a Drum)", and "Walkin' and Whistlin' Blues".
Grammy Hall Of Fame
The following Les Paul recordings with Mary Ford were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance."
- Discovery World
- Gibson Les Paul
- Gibson SG
- List of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees
- Mary Ford