[Dixielandjazz] NY Times obit - Les Paul
Stephen G Barbone
barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Thu Aug 13 09:56:25 PDT 2009
Here is the NY Times obit of this great innovator.
By JON PARELES
Published: August 13, 2009
Les Paul, the virtuoso guitarist and inventor whose solid-body
electric guitar and recording studio innovations changed the course of
20th-century popular music, died Thursday in White Plains. . He was 94
The cause was complications of pneumonia, the Gibson Guitar
Corporation announced. .
Mr. Paul was a remarkable musician as well as a tireless tinkerer. He
played guitar with leading prewar jazz and pop musicians from Louis
Armstrongto Bing Crosby. In the 1930s he began experimenting with
guitar amplification, and by 1941 he had built what was probably the
first solid-body electric guitar, although there are other claimants.
With his electric guitar and the vocals of his wife, Mary Ford, he
used overdubbing, multitrack recording and new electronic effects to
create a string of hits in the 1950s.
Mr. Paul’s style encompassed the twang of country music, the harmonic
richness of jazz and, later, the bite of rock ’n’ roll. For all his
technological impact, though, he remained a down-home performer whose
main goal, he often said, was to make people happy.
Mr. Paul, whose original name was Lester William Polfus, was born on
June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wis. His childhood piano teacher wrote to
his mother, “Your boy, Lester, will never learn music.” But he picked
up harmonica, guitar and banjo by the time he was a teenager and
started playing with country bands in the Midwest. In Chicago he
performed for radio broadcasts on WLS and led the house band at WJJD;
he billed himself as the Wizard of Waukesha, Hot Rod Red and Rhubarb
His interest in gadgets came early. At 10 years old he devised a
harmonica holder from a coat hanger. Soon afterward he made his first
amplified guitar by opening the back of a Sears acoustic model and
inserting, behind the strings, the pickup from a dismantled Victrola.
With the record player on, the acoustic guitar became an electric one.
Later, he built his own pickup from ham radio earphone parts and
assembled a recording machine from a Cadillac flywheel and the belt
from a dentist’s drill.
From country music Mr. Paul moved into jazz, influenced by players
like Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang, who were using amplified hollow-
body guitars to play hornlike single-note solo lines. He formed the
Les Paul Trio in 1936 and moved to New York, where he was heard
regularly on Fred Waring’s radio show from 1938 to 1941.
In 1940 or 1941 — the exact date is unknown — , Mr. Paul made his
guitar breakthrough. Seeking to create electronically sustained notes
on the guitar, he attached strings and two pickups to a wooden board
with a guitar neck. “The log,” as he called it, was probably the first
solid-body electric guitar and became the most influential one. “You
could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be
sounding,” Mr. Paul once said.
The odd-looking instrument drew derision when he first played it in
public, so he hid the works inside a conventional-looking guitar. But
the log was a conceptual turning point. With no acoustic resonance of
its own, it was designed to generate an electronic signal that could
be amplified and processed — the beginning of a sonic transformation
of the world’s music.
Mr. Paul was drafted in 1942 and worked for the Armed Forces Radio
Service, accompanying Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith and others. When he was
discharged in 1943, he was hired as a staff musician for NBC radio in
Los Angeles. His trio toured with the Andrews Sisters and backed Nat
King Cole and Bing Crosby, with whom he recorded the hit “It’s Been a
Long, Long Time” in 1945. Crosby encouraged Mr. Paul to build his own
recording studio, and so he did, in his garage in Los Angeles.
There he experimented with recording techniques, using them to create
not realistic replicas of a performance but electronically enhanced
fabrications. Toying with his mother’s old Victrola had shown him that
changing the speed of a recording could alter both pitch and timbre.
He could record at half-speed and replay the results at normal speed,
creating the illusion of superhuman agility. He altered instrumental
textures through microphone positioning and reverberation. Technology
and studio effects, he realized, were instruments themselves.
He also noticed that by recording along with previous recordings, he
could become a one-man ensemble. As early as his 1948 hit “Lover,” he
made elaborate, multilayered recordings, using two acetate disc
machines, which demanded that each layer of music be recorded in a
single take. From discs he moved to magnetic tape, and in the late
1950s he built the first eight-track multitrack recorder. Each track
could be recorded and altered separately, without affecting the
others. The machine ushered in the modern recording era.
In 1947 Mr. Paul teamed up with Colleen Summers, who had been singing
with Gene Autry’s band. He changed her name to Mary Ford, a name found
in a telephone book.
They were touring in 1948 when Mr. Paul’s car skidded off an icy
bridge. Among his many injuries, his right elbow was shattered; once
set, it would be immovable. Mr. Paul had it set at an angle, slightly
less than 90 degrees, so that he could continue to play guitar.
Mr. Paul, whose first marriage, to Virginia, had ended in divorce,
married Ms. Ford in 1949. Together they had a television show, “Les
Paul and Mary Ford at Home,” which was broadcast from their living
room until 1958. They began recording together, mixing multiple layers
of her vocals with Mr. Paul’s guitars and effects, and the dizzying
results became hits in the early 1950s. Among their more than three
dozen hits, “Mockingbird Hill,” “How High the Moon” and “The World Is
Waiting for the Sunrise” in 1951 and “Vaya Con Dios” in 1953 were
Some of their music was recorded with microphones hanging in various
rooms of the house, including one over the kitchen sink, where Ms.
Ford could record vocals while washing dishes. Mr. Paul also recorded
instrumentals on his own, including the hits “Whispering,” “Tiger Rag”
and “Meet Mister Callaghan” in 1951-52.
The Gibson company hired Mr. Paul to design a Les Paul model guitar in
1952, and Les Paul models have sold steadily ever since, accounting at
one point for half of the company’s total sales. Built of a thick
layer of maple over a mahogany body, with Mr. Paul’s patented pickups,
his design is prized for its clarity and sustained tone. It has been
used by musicians like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Slash of Guns N’
In the mid-1950s, Mr. Paul and Ms. Ford moved to a house in Mahwah,
N.J., where Mr. Paul eventually installed film and recording studios
and amassed a collection of hundreds of guitars.
The couple’s string of hits ended in 1961, and they were divorced in
1964. Ms. Ford died in 1977. Mr. Paul is survived by three sons, Gene,
Russell and Robert, and a daughter, Colleen. In 1964, Mr. Paul
underwent surgery for a broken eardrum, and he began suffering from
arthritis in 1965. Through the 1960s he concentrated on designing
guitars for Gibson. He invented and patented various pickups and
transducers, as well as devices like the Les Paulverizer, an echo-
repeat device, which he introduced in 1974. In the late 1970s he made
two albums with the dean of country guitarists, Chet Atkins.
In 1981 Mr. Paul underwent one of the first quintuple-bypass heart
operations. After recuperating, he returned to performing, though the
progress of his arthritis forced him to relearn the guitar. In 1983 he
started to play weekly performances at Fat Tuesday’s, an intimate
Manhattan jazz club. “I was always happiest playing in a club,” he
said in a 1987 interview. “So I decided to find a nice little club in
New York that I would be happy to play in.” After Fat Tuesday’s closed
in 1995, he moved his Monday-night residency to Iridium.
At his shows he used one of his own customized guitars, which included
a microphone on a gooseneck pointing toward his mouth so that he could
talk through the guitar. In his sets he would mix reminiscences,
wisecracks and comments with versions of jazz standards. Guests —
famous and unknown — showed up to pay homage or test themselves
against him. Despite paralysis in fingers on both hands, he retained
some of his remarkable speed and fluency. Mr. Paul also performed
regularly at jazz festivals through the 1980s.
He recorded a final album, “American Made, World Played” (Capitol), to
celebrate his 90th birthday in 2005. It featured guest appearances by
Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Sting, Joe Perry of Aerosmith
and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. The album brought him two Grammy Awards:
for best pop instrumental performance and best rock instrumental
performance. He had already won Grammy recognition for technical
In recent years, he said he was working on another major invention but
would not reveal what it was. “Honestly, I never strove to be an
Edison,” he said in a 1991 interview in The New York Times. “The only
reason I invented these things was because I didn’t have them and
neither did anyone else. I had no choice, really.”
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