[Dixielandjazz] We Lost Another Giant

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Thu Aug 13 09:49:53 PDT 2009

Sad news. Les Paul passed away at 94.

Steve Barbone

New York, NY…August 13, 2009…Les Paul, acclaimed guitar player,  
entertainer and inventor, passed away today from complications of  
severe pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plain, New York,  
surrounded by family and loved ones. He had been receiving the best  
available treatment through this final battle and in keeping with his  
persona, he showed incredible strength, tenacity and courage. The  
family would like to express their heartfelt thanks for the thoughts  
and prayers from his dear friends and fans. Les Paul was 94.

One of the foremost influences on 20th century sound and responsible  
for the world’s most famous guitar, the Les Paul model, Les Paul’s  
prestigious career in music and invention spans from the 1930s to the  
present. Though he’s indisputably one of America’s most popular,  
influential, and accomplished electric guitarists, Les Paul is best  
known as an early innovator in the development of the solid body  
guitar. His groundbreaking design would become the template for  
Gibson’s best-selling electric, the Les Paul model, introduced in  
1952. Today, countless musical legends still consider Paul’s iconic  
guitar unmatched in sound and prowess. Among Paul’s most enduring  
contributions are those in the technological realm, including  
ingenious developments in multi-track recording, guitar effects, and  
the mechanics of sound in general.

Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915,  
Les Paul was already performing publicly as a honky-tonk guitarist by  
the age of 13. So clear was his calling that Paul dropped out of high  
school at 17 to play in Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis.  
As Paul’s mentor, Wolverton was the one to christen him with the stage  
name “Rhubarb Red,” a moniker that would follow him to Chicago in  
1934. There, Paul became a bonafide radio star, known as both  
hillbilly picker Rhubarb Red and Django Reinhardt-informed jazz  
guitarist Les Paul. His first recordings were done in 1936 on an  
acoustic—alone as Rhubarb Red, as well as backing blues singer Georgia  
White. The next year he formed his first trio, but by 1938 he’d moved  
to New York to begin his tenure on national radio with one of the more  
popular dance orchestras in the country, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians.

Tinkering with electronics and guitar amplification since his youth,  
Les Paul began constructing his own electric guitar in the late ’30s.  
Unhappy with the first generation of commercially available  
hollowbodies because of their thin tone, lack of sustain, and feedback  
problems, Paul opted to build an entirely new structure. “I was  
interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go,” he  
has said. “I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it.  
What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the  
resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound.” With the good  
graces of Epiphone president Epi Stathopoulo, Paul used the Epiphone  
plant and machinery in 1941 to bring his vision to fruition. He  
affectionately dubbed the guitar “The Log.”
Les Paul’s tireless experiments sometimes proved to be dangerous, and  
he nearly electrocuted himself in 1940 during a session in the cellar  
of his Queens apartment. During the next two years of rehabilitation,  
Les earned his living producing radio music. Forced to put the  
Pennsylvanians and the rest of his career on hold, Les Paul moved to  
Hollywood. During World War II, he was drafted into the Army but  
permitted to stay in California, where he became a regular player for  
Armed Forces Radio Service. By 1943 he had assembled a trio that  
regularly performed live, on the radio, and on V-Discs. In 1944 he  
entered the jazz spotlight—thanks to his dazzling work filling in for  
Oscar Moore alongside Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, and other  
superstars —at the first of the prestigious Jazz at the Philharmonic  

By his mid-thirties, Paul had successfully combined Reinhardt-inspired  
jazz playing and the western swing and twang of his Rhubarb Red  
persona into one distinctive, electrifying style. In the Les Paul Trio  
he translated the dizzying runs and unusual harmonies found on Jazz at  
the Philharmonic into a slower, subtler, more commercial approach. His  
novelty instrumentals were tighter, brasher, and punctuated with  
effects. Overall, the trademark Les Paul sound was razor-sharp, clean- 
shaven, and divinely smooth.

As small combos eclipsed big bands toward the end of World War II, Les  
Paul Trio’s popularity grew. They cut records for Decca both alone and  
behind the likes of Helen Forrest, the Andrews Sisters, the Delta  
Rhythm Boys, Dick Hayes, and, most notably, Bing Crosby. Since 1945,  
when the crooner brought them into the studio to back him on a few  
numbers, the Trio had become regular guests on Crosby’s hit radio  
show. The highlight of the session was Paul’s first No. 1 hit and  
million-seller, the gorgeous “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”

Meanwhile, Paul began to experiment with dubbing live tracks over  
recorded tracks, also altering the playback speed. This resulted in  
“Lover (When You’re Near Me),” his revolutionary 1947 predecessor to  
multi-track recording. The hit instrumental featured Les Paul on eight  
different electric guitar parts, all playing together. In 1948, Paul  
nearly lost his life to a devastating car crash that shattered his  
right arm and elbow. Still, he convinced doctors to set his broken arm  
in the guitar-picking and cradling position. Laid up but undaunted,  
Paul acquired a first generation Ampex tape recorder from Crosby in  
1949, and began his most important multi-tracking adventure, adding a  
fourth head to the recorder to create sound-on-sound recordings. While  
tinkering with the machine and its many possibilities, he also came up  
with tape delay. These tricks, along with another recent Les Paul  
innovation—close mic-ing vocals—were integrated for the first time on  
a single recording: the 1950 No. 1 tour de force “How High the Moon.”  
This historic track was performed during a duo with future wife Mary  
Ford. The couple’s prolific string of hits for Capitol Records not  
only included some of the most popular recordings of the early 1950s,  
but also wrote the book on contemporary studio production. The dense  
but crystal clear harmonic layering of guitars and vocals, along with  
Ford’s close mic-ed voice and Paul’s guitar effects, produced  
distinctively contemporary recordings with unprecedented sonic  
qualities. Through hits, tours, and popular radio shows, Paul and Ford  
kept one foot in the technological vanguard and the other in the  
cultural mainstream.

All the while, Les Paul continued to pine for the perfect guitar.  
Though The Log came close, it wasn’t quite what he was after. In the  
early 1950s, Gibson Guitar would cultivate a partnership with Paul  
that would lead to the creation of the guitar he’d seen only in his  
dreams. In 1948, Gibson elected to design its first solidbody, and  
Paul, a self-described “dyed-in-the-wool Gibson man,” seemed the right  
man for the job. Gibson avidly courted the guitar legend, even driving  
deep into the Pennsylvania mountains to deliver the first model to  
newlyweds Les Paul and Mary Ford.
“Les played it, and his eyes lighted up,” then-Gibson President Ted  
McCarty has recalled. The year was 1950, and Paul had just signed on  
as the namesake of Gibson’s first electric solidbody, with exclusive  
design privileges. Working closely with Paul, Gibson forged a  
relationship that would change popular culture forever. The Gibson Les  
Paul model—the most powerful and respected electric guitar in history— 
began with the 1952 release of the Les Paul Goldtop. After introducing  
the original Les Paul Goldtop in 1952, Gibson issued the Black Beauty,  
the mahogany-topped Les Paul Custom, in 1954. The Les Paul Junior  
(1954) and Special (1955) were also introduced before the canonical  
Les Paul Standard hit the market in 1958. With revolutionary humbucker  
pickups, this sunburst classic has remained unchanged for the half- 
century since it hit the market.

“The world has lost a truly innovative and exceptional human being  
today. I cannot imagine life without Les Paul. He would walk into a  
room and put a smile on anyone’s face. His musical charm was  
extraordinary and his techniques unmatched anywhere in the world,”  
said Henry Juszkiewicz, Chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar. “We will  
dedicate ourselves to preserving Les’ legacy to insure that it lives  
on forever. He touched so many lives throughout his remarkable life  
and his influence extends around the globe and across every boundary.  
I have lost a dear, personal friend and mentor, a man who has changed  
so many of our lives for the better.”

“I don’t think any words can describe the man we know as Les Paul  
adequately. The English language does not contain words that can pay  
enough homage to someone like Les. As the “Father of the Electric  
Guitar”, he was not only one of the world’s greatest innovators  but a  
legend who created, inspired and contributed to the success of  
musicians around the world,” said Dave Berryman, President of Gibson  
Guitar. “I have had the privilege to know and work with Les for many,  
many years and his passing has left a deep personal void. He was  
simply put – remarkable in every way. As a person, a musician, a  
friend, an inventor. He will be sorely missed by us all,”

With the rise of the rock ’n’ roll revolution of 1955, Les Paul and  
Mary Ford’s popularity began to wane with younger listeners, though  
Paul would prove to be a massive influence on younger generation of  
guitarists. Still, Paul and Ford maintained their iconic presence with  
their wildly popular television show, which ran from 1953-1960. In  
1964, the couple, parents to a son and daughter, divorced. Paul began  
playing in Japan, and recorded an LP for London Records before poor  
health forced him to take time off—as much as someone so inspired can  
take time off.
In the 1977, Paul resurfaced with a Grammy-winning Chet Atkins  
collaboration, Chester and Lester. Then the ailing guitarist, who’d  
already suffered arthritis and permanent hearing loss, had a heart  
attack, followed by bypass surgery.

Ever stubborn, Les recovered, and returned to live performance in the  
late 1980s. Even releasing the 2005 double-Grammy winner Les Paul &  
Friends: American Made World Played, featuring collaborations with a  
veritable who’s who of the electric guitar, including dozens of  
illustrious fans like Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Jeff  
Beck, Eric Clapton, and Joe Perry. In 2008, The Rock and Roll Hall of  
Fame paid tribute to Les Paul in a week-long celebration of his life  
which culminated with a live performance by Les himself.  Until  
recently Les continued to perform two weekly New York shows with the  
Les Paul Trio, at The Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, for over  
twelve years where a literal who’s who of the entertainment world has  
paid homage.  It has been an honor to have Les Paul perform at The  
Iridium Jazz Club  for the past twelve years hosting such luminaries  
as Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and others and is a tragic loss to  
owner Ron Sturm both personally and professionally. Iridium intends to  
celebrate Les Paul's music and legacy every Monday night.

Les Paul has since become the only individual to share membership into  
the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National  
Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame.  
Les is survived by his three sons Lester (Rus) G.  Paul, Gene W. Paul  
and Robert (Bobby) R. Paul, his daughter Colleen Wess, son-in-law Gary  
Wess, long time friend Arlene Palmer,  five grandchildren and five  
great grandchildren. A private Funeral service will be held in New  
York. A service in Waukesha, WI will be announced at a later date.  
Details will follow and will be announced for all services. Memorial  
tributes for the public will be announced at a future date.   The  
family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Les Paul  
Foundation, 236 West 30th Street, 7th Floor, New York, New York 10001.

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