Les Paul: Influential guitarist whose technical innovations helped create the sound of rock 'n' roll

Paul Wadey
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:04

Les Paul, the "Wizard of Waukesha" was, perhaps, the most influential guitarist of the twentieth century.

A technically superb player whose fluid sound owed debts to both jazz and country stylists, he lent his name to what has become the definitive rock 'n' roll guitar, the Gibson Les Paul. He was, too, an innovator in the recording studio: his experiments in multi-tracking, overdubbing and reverb effects having led directly to many of the subsequent developments in recorded sound.

Lester William Polsfuss was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915. As a youngster he idolised a Chicago-based musician named Pie Plant Pete who simultaneously played the harmonica and guitar. In emulation of his hero he designed a harmonica-frame and, accompanying himself on a guitar purchased from a Sears catalogue and billed as "Red Hot Red", quickly became a mainstay of the local music scene.

He was interested in problems of amplification even then, later recalling: "I attached a broomstick to a cinderblock in order to make a mic-stand, used my mother's telephone attached to a radio to sing into and got a job playing at a barbecue stand. However, my guitar was just not loud enough. Eventually, I took a phonograph pick-up and jabbed the needle into the top of the guitar, right at the bridge, to see if I could amplify the guitar. It worked but fed back, so I stuffed napkins, socks, everything I could think of into the hole to prevent feedback. I ended up filling it with plaster of Paris."

By 1932 he was performing with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys and began to make regular appearances, now billed as Rhubarb Red, on mid-western radio. While in Chicago he was able to develop a growing interest in jazz and from 1936 began to support the blues singer Georgia White on a series of recordings that included her signature tune, "Trouble In Mind".

In 1937 he formed the first Les Paul Trio with Chet Atkins' brother Jim on rhythm guitar and vocals and Ernie Newton on bass. Moving to New York they became a featured act with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, and Les again found himself working alongside the cream of jazz musicians, including, on one memorable occasion at Minton's in Harlem, the great Charlie Christian. In 1944 Nat Cole invited him to Los Angeles where he performed with the pianist's Trio at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert and a year later he joined Bing Crosby at the session that produced one of the singer's biggest hits, "It's Been A Long, Long Time".

With encouragement from Crosby, he built a recording studio in his own garage, a forerunner of the private studio that is today almost de rigueur within a successful musician's home. If his equipment appeared deceptively basic – his recording lathe was powered by a jukebox motor and featured a solid steel Cadillac flywheel which served as a turntable – it was nevertheless highly effective. He experimented with both close mic work and synchronisation, and brought in delay echo by putting a playback pickup behind the head of a wire recorder.

The studio's innovations made it popular with acts like Kay Starr, Jo Stafford and the Andrews Sisters, an act with whom he briefly enjoyed a close association, not only playing on their 1946 hit, "Rumors Are Flying" but also opening for them on tour. During these shows Paul introduced a headless aluminium guitar only to find that his creation went out of tune as soon as the spotlights became too hot.

He was almost invariably dissatisfied with the sounds he was getting from his guitars and spent much of his spare time developing a solid body instrument. In the early 1940s he devised his famous "Log", a 4in x4in piece of pine to which he had attached a neck, two homemade pickups and a pair of side wings from an Epiphone acoustic. Although he played it often, an attempt to sell the idea to the people at Gibson resulted in the dismissive jibe that it was a "broomstick", and it wasn't until 1952 that the company launched its own commercially viable solid body design, naming it, fittingly, the Gibson Les Paul.

A car accident in 1948 in which Paul shattered his right elbow nearly sidelined his career. He insisted, however, on having the arm reset at an angle and, after minimal convalescence, continued to play. In that same year his experiments with sound recording resulted in the double-sided hit "Lover"/"Brazil" which featured six multi-tracked guitar parts. He also began a musical partnership with a young country singer named Colleen Summers. Using the stage name Mary Ford she would become an integral part of his act – and, in 1949, his wife.

Their innovative chart entries included "The Tennessee Waltz" (1950), "How High The Moon" (1951) with its 12 overdubs, "Mockin' Bird Hill" (1951), "Tiger Rag" (1952), the chart topping "Vaya Con Dios" (1953), "Hummingbird" (1955) and, finally, "Amukiriki" (1956). The albums they recorded together included Hawaiian Paradise (1949), The Hitmakers and Les And Mary (both 1955), Bouquet Of Roses (1962) and Swingin' South (1963). In addition he cut an all-instrumental disc, Galloping Guitars (1952), and had solo hits with "Cinco Robles" (1957) and "Put A Ring On My Finger" (1958).

In 1956 he devised a small black box which, when attached to his guitar, would enable the duo to successfully replicate the sound of their records when performing on stage. Named the "Les Paulverizer" by its creator, it debuted at the Eisenhower White House in that same year.

By 1963 Les and Mary's already frail marriage had clearly reached breaking point and in 1964 they divorced. Paul spent the next two decades out of the spotlight, experimenting with new technology at his New Jersey home. In 1977, however, he resurfaced for a Grammy-winning duet project with fellow musical innovator Chet Atkins entitled Chester And Lester, following it a year later with the similar Guitar Giants. In 1986 he produced pianist Joe Bushkin's Play It Again, Joe album and in 1988 fellow guitar hero Jeff Beck inducted him into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, quipping, "I've copied more licks from Les Paul than I'd like to admit."

From 1984 Paul began making weekly appearances on the New York club scene, spending 12 years playing each Monday night at Fat Tuesday's before switching, in 1996, to The Iridium. In 2002 an interviewer asked him of his future plans for his music. He replied, characteristically: "Same thing I was working on in the '20s: I'm trying to make it better. There's a million ways of improving, there's a million different directions to go in, and I try to do all of them."

Lester William Polsfuss (Les Paul), guitarist and engineer: born Waukesha, Wisconsin 9 June 1915; married Virginia Webb (divorced 1949, two sons); married 1949 Iris Colleen Summers (divorced 1964, died 1977, one son and one adopted daughter); died New York 13 August 2009.

A significant event that was missed in the otherwise comprehensive Les Paul obituary (14 August) was that it was the adoption of the Gibson Les Paul by Eric Clapton in 1965 (during his second stint with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers) that is the main reason why the name "Les Paul" has remained in the popular music consciousness, writes Peter Ross.

The revolutionary sound that Clapton produced by the combination of the Gibson Les Paul guitar with distorted Marshall amplification has influenced every blues and rock guitarist from then to the present day. This doesn't diminish the achievements of Les Paul's most creative period (the 1950s), but his name would not have been so widely known today but for the innovations of Clapton's classic 1965-66 "Bluesbreakers" era.

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