Les Paul: ‘He changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll’

[14 August 2009]

By Jim Beckerman

The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)

Who will mourn Les Paul, the world-famous musician and inventor who died Thursday at age 94?

Anyone who’s ever been in a recording studio.

Anyone who has owned a Gibson Les Paul guitar.

Anyone, above all, who loves rock ‘n’ roll. Though a jazzman himself, his pioneer work as an electric guitar inventor and multitrack recording trailblazer made him a kind of honorary rock star.

“He changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll,” Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley said Thursday. “He was an innovator and a character and a sweetheart and a gentleman.”

Paul, who had kept up his weekly jazz gigs at the New York club Iridium until about nine weeks ago, died of complications of pneumonia at White Plains Hospital, with family and friends by his side.

“His contribution to the guitar, itself, literally changed everything,” jazz guitarist Pat Metheny said Thursday.

The iconic Gibson Les Paul guitar, introduced in 1952, became the gold standard for musicians as different as Al Di Meola, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Slash and Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn.

“When Kiss first started out, when I got my first check from the record company, I went to a music store in New York and picked up my first Les Paul — a sunburst,” Frehley said. “It’s been a love affair ever since.”

Even more momentous, perhaps, was Paul’s virtual invention of multitrack recording, without which “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Dark Side of the Moon” and just about any other classic rock album could not exist.

“No working musician who has ever been in a studio is not feeling the effects of Les Paul,” said Grammy-nominated bluegrass musician Tony Trischka.

The 34-room Mahwah, N.J., mansion that Paul lived in until the end of his life was a veritable Willy Wonka laboratory of inventions and gadgets.

It was designed in 1952 for TV’s first “reality” show, “The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show,” which was broadcast live in five-minute segments and starred Paul and his then-wife and singing partner Mary Ford (“How High the Moon,” “Vaya Con Dios”). The house was specially built for TV, with high ceilings and skylights for the cameras to dolly through.

Through the years, it became Paul’s receiving salon — guests included Gene Autry, Jimmy Page, Bill Wyman, Artie Shaw and Tal Farlow — and laboratory, where he pioneered such things as guitar pickups, reverb and delay effects, and the gamut of electronic devices that make rock-and-roll possible.

Also enshrined at Paul’s home were his two most famous inventions, forever linked to his name.

One was a gigantic refrigerator-size console dubbed “The Octopus,” the world’s first eight-track studio, created in 1953 after years of tinkering.

The other is the Gibson Les Paul guitar. In his bedroom — wall to wall — were hundreds of them.

“I feel very humble about the whole thing,” Paul told The Record in 2003. “I just feel grateful that the guitar has been accepted around the world.”

Though not the world’s first electric guitar, the Les Paul quickly became the industry standard.

“It has the three requirements of a great instrument: sound, look and feel,” Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz said Thursday. “That was no accident. Les spent years working on it.”

Paul, a three-time Grammy winner who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wis.

He came up through the vaudeville circuit as a performer in the late 1920s and early 1930s (an early performing partner was a then-unknown piano player named Liberace), and began tinkering with electric guitars as early as 1928.

His first model was made from a segment of iron railroad track.

“I showed it to my mother and she said, ‘The day you see Gene Autry on a horse with a railroad track ... ’ ” Paul recalled.

A later experimental model was dubbed The Log — and looked it.

Paul, who never went to college, was an untutored inventing genius. As early as the 1920s, he said, he had grasped the fundamentals of CD recording when he realized that a gramophone got deeper-sounding when it slowed down, while a player piano didn’t.

“That’s when I learned about analog and digital,” he said.

Paul married Mary Ford (born Iris Colleen Summers) in 1949; they were TV stars and Top 40 recording artists in the 1950s. They divorced in 1964, and Ford died in 1977.

While Les Paul the man is gone, Les Paul the name will live forever — in the hearts of musicians, and on the headstocks of thousands of the world’s best guitars.

“He was the godfather, as it were,” said Bobby Bandiera, cohort of Jon Bon Jovi and torch-bearing guitarist for the Jersey Shore sound. “If you don’t own a Les Paul and you consider yourself a guitar player, you’re only half a guitar player.”

Paul is survived by three sons, Lester “Rus” G. Paul, Gene W. Paul and Robert Paul; and an adopted daughter, Colleen Wess. A private funeral service will be held in New York.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/109861-les-paul-he-changed-the-face-of-rock-n-roll/