In the popular mind, guitarist Les Paul existed for half a decade: the years 1950-54, when he and his vocalist-wife Mary Ford enjoyed 16 Top 10 hits, including "How High the Moon" (No. 1 for nine weeks) and "Vaya Con Dios" (No. 1 for 11). Scanning the Great American Songbook for standards 20 or 30 years old, Paul would roast the chestnut into 2/4 time, add Ford's silky stylings and serve up a million seller like "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" or "Bye Blue Blues." Musical satisfaction guaranteed.
That should suffice, for anyone whose memory contained chips of Paul's amazing facility with a sound he invented and perfected. As he told Stephen K. Peeples in the 60-page booklet that comes with the four-CD set Les Paul: The Legend and the Legacy (on the Gold Rush label), "That big, fat, round, ballsy sound with the bright high-end is the Les Paul sound. Nobody else has it." And if that's not enough, he was the original do-it-all recording mastermind: a producer-arranger-performer who carried his recording studio with him, courtesy of a few portable machines he built. Les was more.
Yet Paul, who died today at 94 in White Plains, N.Y., was no mere antique hitmaker to the rock generations that both learned from him and put his kind of music out of business. He was an inventor and an inspiration. He pioneered recording on tape, creating dozens of layers of sound with an early reel-to-reel tape machine. He designed (though he did not construct) one of the first synthesizers. He devised the first eight-track tape recording system, which would not become generally accepted until 15 years later, when the Beatles made their White Album. And he invented the Gibson Les Paul, an instrument used in various models by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and loads of other Guitar-zans.
In an interview with Frank Beacham, Paul joked that a lot of people didn't know he played a guitar. "They think I am one," he said. He was something more: a genius of a tinkerer, with machines and music the Edison of pop.
Waiting for the Sunrise
He was born Lester Polsfuss (the family soon simplified the name to Polfus) in Waukesha, Wis., 18 miles west of Milwaukee. Encouraged by his mother, he learned piano, guitar and harmonica. His curiosity led him to all sorts of precocious experiments, like poking new holes in player-piano music to make new melodies, or, at 13, disconnecting a console-radio speaker and attaching a phonograph pickup. He bought his first Gibson guitar, an L-5 acoustic, which he promptly electrified. In local performances, he wired his guitar to radios stage right and left voilà, stereo! "If you can be an engineer and a musician," he told David John Farinella for a biographical sketch in the 1999 Encyclopedia of Record Producers, "that's very complementary."
Billing himself as Rhubarb Red, Paul soon had a country-music act out of Chicago. He played harmonica and guitar and, between numbers, peddled rube humor. By the early '30s he was making $1,000 a week at the country stuff, but in the bustling Chicago music scene, there was so much more to hear and play. In the morning he was hillbilly, and at night he was playing jazz with Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Nat Cole and Art Tatum. He cut his first records in 1936, backing blues singer-pianist Georgia White as she belted out Andy Razaf's raunchy threat, "If I can't sell it, I'll keep sittin' on it, before I give it away." A year later, he formed his first trio, with bass player Ernie Newton and rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins (the elder half brother of Chet Atkins, with whom Paul cut the 1995 album Chester and Lester). They went east, and the Les Paul Trio got a New York City club date. More than 70 years later, another Paul trio was playing weekly gigs at Iridium, across from Lincoln Center.
In the '40s he got some flashy gigs like a Jazz at the Philharmonic session with Nat Cole on piano and Illinois Jacquet on sax but spent more time on electronic experimentation. He built a new guitar out of Epiphone parts and called it the Log. He used it in his recordings for the next decade. After assembling a recording studio in his garage (total cost: $415), he produced such performers as Gene Austin, the Andrews Sisters and his pal and patron Bing Crosby. His work with White, Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, as well as some Les Paul Trio sides, can be found on Les Paul: The Trio's Complete Decca Recordings Plus (1936-47).