Guitar legend Les Paul dies at 94

[13 August 2009]

By Don Walker

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

MILWAUKEE — Les Paul, the Waukesha, Wis.-born genius who rose to become one of the most influential musicians in the 20th century, has died at the age of 94.

The Gibson Guitar Co., said on its Web site that Paul died of complications of pneumonia at a White Plains (N.Y.) hospital.

Paul was best known as a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar and the originator of multi-track recording.

Paul, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was also a major recording artist in the 1940s and 1950s, and performed in Manhattan late in life.

With his wife Mary Ford, Paul enjoyed a series of over 25 top 40 hits in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s including “Vaya Con Dios,” “Hummingbird,” and “How High the Moon.” The couple later divorced and Mary Ford died in 1977.

Paul influenced scores of musicians in the worlds of rock and jazz. One of them was Steve Miller. Back in 1948, Miller’s father struck up a friendship with Paul when the guitarist was visiting Milwaukee for a date at a local club.

“Les and Mary showed me my first chords,” Miller told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “He’s such a great player, everytime I go to New York I go to the club and jam with Les. There’s just this vibe around him. It’s always a jam session and all the cats are always there.”

Aside from making rock-and-roll possible with his creation of the electric guitar, Paul also contributed immensely to the advance of studio recording over the years with inventions like multitrack recording, reverb, and more than a dozen others.

Paul McCartney once said this of Paul: “Les was one of the greatest innovators in recording techniques. The work he put into developing the guitar that was named after him made the instrument an all-time classic, and his incredible playing skills make him one of the masters of the instrument.”

In 1990 Capitol honored him with a boxed set “Les Paul the Legend and the Legacy.” The 4 CD box contained liner notes by Paul himself and 34 never-before released tracks.

Born Lester William Polsfuss, Les Paul started performing at home when he was 10 years old, organizing his own little orchestra. He also became fascinated with electronics, building his own broadcasting set in his basement.

A Waukesha music teacher had told Paul’s mother not to waste her money on lessons for the boy because he wasn’t “musically inclined.”

By 1928, however, Paul had a hot new stage act. At age 13, he was a local sensation: Red Hot Red, the Wizard of Waukesha. He played at Lions Club functions, speakeasies and nightclubs. There were pictures of young “Red” at the Mahwah studio.

Paul played at a barbecue stand near Milwaukee, he said, but remembered people in their cars complaining that they couldn’t hear him. He solved the problem by creating an electric guitar out of his acoustic guitar. He simply jabbed a phonograph needle into the 1912-model instrument and wired it to his mother’s radio.

To make it easier for people to hear his singing, Paul said, he built a microphone, by wiring the mouthpiece part of his mother’s telephone (now attached to a broomstick) to his father’s radio.

He then designed a recording machine using the flywheel from a Cadillac (his father owned a garage) and a belt from a dentist’s drill. “Here she is,” Paul said, pointing to the crude-looking but functional device in his studio.

About the same time he saved money from his newspaper route and bought a Silvertone guitar, for $2.49. “I took off the sixth string because my fingers couldn’t reach it,” he recalled.

As he practiced his new instrument and listened to jazz bands from Chicago over the radio, Paul noticed that an acoustic guitar, which got its amplification from the string ringing off the hollow body, could not compete for volume in a big band. It needed a boost, he thought.

Only 13 years old at the time, he reasoned that a phonograph pickup — the little device that takes the sound from a record and makes it loud enough to hear — could provide the extra volume if placed under the strings and sent to a radio speaker.

Thus was born a rudimentary electric guitar, using the cartridge and stylus from a phonograph, in 1927.

By 1941, with his career as a country and jazz guitarist taking off, Paul came up with the idea that an electric guitar need not have a hollow body at all. The pickup did all the work, so theoretically a guitar could be fashioned from a solid piece of wood. And that is exactly what he did, using a four-by-four as the body and a more sophisticated pickup. Colleagues called it “the log.”

At Bing Crosby’s suggestion Paul built his own recording studio and came up with more inventions like reverb. In 1953 he perfected the first multi-track recording machine, a revolutionary device that allowed musicians to lay down separate lines of music and vocals and blend them together.

He married Mary Ford in 1949. He and his first wife, Virginia, whom he had married in 1937, had two sons, Gene and Russel. With Mary Ford he had a son, Robert, and adopted a girl, Colleen.

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