Guitar legend-inventor Les Paul dies at age 94

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / August 13, 2009

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Les Paul, who helped revolutionize popular music with his innovations on the guitar and in the recording studio, died yesterday of complications from pneumonia. He was 94.

As the recording executive Ahmet Ertegun said in 1988 upon Mr. Paul’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “Les Paul is an inspiration to a world of guitarists for his playing, for the instrument he created and his multiple-track recording innovations. Without him, it’s hard to imagine how rock and roll would be played today.”

Mr. Paul enjoyed enormous success in a performing career that lasted more than 80 years, selling more than 10 million records and earning 34 gold records. During the early ’50s, he and his second wife, the singer Mary Ford, were among the most popular acts in show business.

“What he was doing on those hits couldn’t have failed to influence any guitarist,” Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, a vastly different player, once said of Mr. Paul.

Yet it was as an inspired musical tinkerer that Mr. Paul had his greatest impact. He essentially invented the technique of multi-track recording, and it was at his behest that Ampex built the first eight-track recorder. Mr. Paul’s overdubbing of his guitar playing and Ford’s singing was so unprecedented that Capitol Records billed it as “The New Sound.”

While Mr. Paul did not invent the solid-body electric guitar, he is widely credited with having done so. Certainly, he did more to popularize it than any other player, and he was the first guitarist to exploit such possibilities offered by electrification as feedback and note bending.

Mr. Paul never played anything that sounded in the least bit like rock. His style was a highly distinctive combination of swing, country, and pop. Yet it’s hard to imagine the electric guitar becoming the king of rock without Mr. Paul having played kingmaker.

The success of Mr. Paul’s recordings gave the electric guitar a newfound prominence. As the jazz critic George Simon noted with startling prescience in 1953, “What Benny Goodman did for the clarinet ... Les Paul has done for the guitar. He has brought it into such prominence that it has become an almost newly discovered instrument for many people, as well as one with which musicians can make more sound, and more money than ever before.”

A year earlier, Gibson had brought out its first Les Paul model guitar. It has remained on the market ever since, along with subsequent model lines. Mr. Paul actually contributed only a few details to the design, but he received a royalty on every one sold. More important, the name “Les Paul” became inextricably linked with the electric guitar in the public imagination.

“I’m so identified with the Les Paul electrics that sometimes a kid’ll come up and say, ‘Hey, you’re a real person, not a guitar.’” Mr. Paul wrote in 1981.

Guitarists who have played Les Pauls make up a who’s who of jazz and rock: Page, Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton, George Benson, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Duane Allman, Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen, and Slash.

At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mr. Paul said, “I have been credited with inventing a few things you guys are using.... About the most I can say is ’Have fun with my toys.’”

Mr. Paul, christened Lester William Polfuss, was born on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisc. His parents were George William Polfuss, an auto dealer, and Evelyn (Stutz) Polfuss.

Although he never studied music or electronics, Mr. Paul showed an early aptitude for both. He punched new holes in his mother’s player-piano rolls (his first overdubbing) and built his own crystal radio set.

Mr. Paul began performing professionally at 13. Playing jazz, he worked as “Red Hot Red.” Playing country, he was “Rhubarb Red.” He owed the names to his hair color. Within six years, he had debuted on network radio, playing an electrified guitar of his own making, as leader of the Les Paul Trio. The trio eventually earned a place on Fred Waring’s popular radio show, in 1937, staying there for four years.

Mr. Paul, whose virtuosity in the workshop had earned him the nickname “the Wizard of Waukesha,” built what may be the most famous guitar in music history in 1941. If the instrument was to be played as a solo instrument with a large ensemble, it had to be amplified. But amplifying a hollow-body guitar created feedback problems.

What became known as ‘‘The Log’’ was Mr. Paul’s response: a 4-inch-thick piece of pine on which he mounted a tailpiece, a pair of pickups, and the neck of a Gibson guitar. “You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding,” he liked to boast. He tried to sell the idea to Gibson, but it would be another ten years before they were ready to go electric.

After Mr. Paul left Waring, he worked as music director of two radio stations in Chicago, then moved to Los Angeles. He was drafted and served in the Armed Forces Radio Service. Resuming his career, he played with Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.

Still an avid tinkerer, Mr. Paul built a recording studio in the garage of his Hollywood home. He used the flywheel from a Cadillac for the turntable (Mr. Paul figured, correctly, that the flywheel’s weight would minimize vibrations), a linking belt he bought from a dentist, and some vacuum cleaner parts to remove shavings as discs were being cut.

He also met a singer named Colleen Summers. They eventually wed, but only after Mr. Paul had suggested she record under the name Mary Ford (he liked the simplicity of it). A string of hits ensued: “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” “Whither Thou Goest,” “Vaya Con Dios” (their biggest seller), and “How High the Moon,” which the Library of Congress has included on its list of the 50 most significant American recordings.

The collaboration between Mr. Paul and Ford almost never happened. In a 1948 automobile accident, he broke his arm in three places. A bone graft required the insertion of a steel plate which would prevent Mr. Paul from bending his elbow. He instructed his doctors to set it at a 90-degree angle, which would allow him to continue as a guitarist. “Just point it toward my belly button so I can play,” he said.

Ironically, the rock revolution Mr. Paul had helped set in motion made his and Ford’s recordings seem outmoded. Their commercial success had masked increasing personal strains within the relationship, and in 1964 they divorced. Ford died in 1977.

Mr. Paul won his first Grammy Award, in 1977, for best country instrumental, for “Chester and Lester,” an album of duets with Chet Atkins. A year later, he and Ford were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1983, he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to the recording industry. In 2001, he was awarded an additional Grammy for his technical achievements. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005. President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

Mr. Paul began playing Monday nights at a New York City jazz club, Fat Tuesdays, in 1984. The gig lasted until the club closed, in 1995. The next year he resumed his Monday-night engagement, at a different New York club, Iridium. “What can be better than looking forward to Mondays?” he said in a 1987 interview with The Washington Post. He last performed there in June.

Mr. Paul leaves two sons, Robert and Lester Jr. (Rusty); a daughter, Colleen; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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