Lester William Polsfuss, known as Les Paul, was an American jazz, country, and blues guitarist, songwriter, luthier, and inventor. He was one of the pioneers of the solid-body electric guitar, and his techniques served as inspiration for the Gibson Les Paul. Paul taught himself how to play guitar, and while he is mainly known for jazz and popular music, he had an early career in country music. He is credited with many recording innovations. Although he was not the first to use the technique, his early experiments with overdubbing, delay effects such as tape delay, phasing effects and multitrack recording were among the first to attract widespread attention.
His licks, trills, chording sequences, fretting techniques and timing set him apart from his contemporaries and inspired many guitarists of the present day. He recorded with his wife, the singer and guitarist Mary Ford, in the 1950s, and they sold millions of records.
Among his many honors, Paul is one of a handful of artists with a permanent exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is prominently named by the music museum on its website as an "architect" and a "key inductee" with Sam Phillips and Alan Freed. Les Paul is the only person to be included in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Early lifePaul was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to George and Evelyn Polsfuss. His family was of German ancestry. Paul's mother was related to the founders of Milwaukee's Valentin Blatz Brewing Company and the makers of the Stutz automobile. His parents divorced when he was a child. His mother simplified their Prussian family name first to Polfuss, then to Polfus, although Les Paul never legally changed his name. Before taking the stage name Les Paul, he also performed as Red Hot Red and Rhubarb Red.
At the age of eight, Paul began playing the harmonica. After trying to learn the piano, he switched to the guitar. It was during this time that he invented a neck-worn harmonica holder, which allowed him to play both sides of the harmonica hands-free while accompanying himself on the guitar. It is still manufactured using his basic design. By age thirteen, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. While playing at the Waukesha area drive-ins and roadhouses, Paul began his first experiment with sound. Wanting to make himself heard by more people at the local venues, he wired a phonograph needle to his guitar and connected it to a radio speaker, using that to amplify his acoustic guitar. As a teen Paul experimented with sustain by using a 2-foot piece of rail from a nearby train line. At age seventeen, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys, and soon after he dropped out of high school to team up with Sunny Joe Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri, on KMOX.
Early careerPaul moved to Chicago in 1934, where he continued to perform on radio stations WBBM and WLS. He met pianist Art Tatum, whose playing influenced him to stick with the guitar rather than original plans of taking on the piano. His first two records were released in 1936, credited to "Rhubarb Red", Paul's hillbilly alter ego. He also served as an accompanist for a few other bands signed to Decca. During this time he began adding different sounds and adopted his stage name of Les Paul.
Paul's guitar style was strongly influenced by the music of Django Reinhardt, whom he greatly admired. Following World War II, Paul sought out and made friends with Reinhardt. When Reinhardt died in 1953, Paul paid for part of the funeral's cost. One of Paul's prized possessions was a Selmer acoustic guitar given to him by Reinhardt's widow.
Paul formed a trio in 1937 with rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins and bassist/percussionist Ernie "Darius" Newton. They left Chicago for New York in 1938, landing a featured spot with Fred Waring's radio show. Chet Atkins later wrote that his brother, home on a family visit, presented him with an expensive Gibson archtop guitar that Les Paul had given to Jim. Chet recalled that it was the first professional-quality instrument he ever owned.
Paul was dissatisfied with acoustic-electric guitars and began experimenting at his apartment in Queens, New York with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created several versions of "The Log", which was a length of common 4x4 lumber with a bridge, neck, strings, and pickup attached. For the sake of appearance, he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body. These instruments were constantly being improved and modified over the years, and Paul continued to use them in his recordings long after the development of his eponymous Gibson model.
In 1945, Richard D. Bourgerie made an electric guitar pickup and amplifier for professional guitar player George Barnes. Bourgerie worked through World War II at Howard Radio Company making electronic equipment for the American military. Barnes showed the result to Les Paul, who arranged for Bourgerie to have one made for him.
While experimenting in his apartment in 1941, Paul nearly succumbed to electrocution. During two years of recuperation, he moved to Hollywood, supporting himself by producing radio music and forming a new trio. During this time, he was remembered by factory workers as a frequent visitor to the Electro String Instrument Corp. shop on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, where he observed production of Rickenbacker brand guitars and amplifiers.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, where he served in the Armed Forces Radio Network, backing such artists as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, and performing in his own right.
As a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 1944. His solo on "Body and Soul" is a demonstration both of his admiration for and emulation of the playing of Django Reinhardt, as well as his development of original lines.
Also that year, Paul's trio appeared on Bing Crosby's radio show. Crosby sponsored Paul's recordings. They recorded together several times, including "It's Been a Long, Long Time", which was a No. 1 hit in 1945. Paul recorded a few albums for Decca Records in the 1940s. He was enamoured by the Andrews Sisters, who hired his trio to open for them during a tour in 1946. Their manager, Lou Levy, said watching Paul's fingers while he played guitar was like watching a train go by. Their conductor, Vic Schoen, said his playing was always original. Maxine Andrews said, "He'd tune into the passages we were singing and lightly play the melody, sometimes in harmony. We'd sing these fancy licks and he'd keep up with us note for note in exactly the same rhythm... almost contributing a fourth voice. But he never once took the attention away from what we were doing. He did everything he could to make us sound better." In the 1950s, when he recorded Mary Paul's vocals on multiple tracks, he created music that sounded like the Andrews Sisters.
In January 1948, Paul shattered his right arm and elbow in a near-fatal automobile accident on an icy Route 66 west of Davenport, Oklahoma. Mary Ford was driving the Buick convertible, which plunged off the side of a railroad overpass and dropped twenty feet into a ravine; they were returning from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after visiting family. Doctors at Oklahoma City's Wesley Presbyterian Hospital told Paul that they could not rebuild his elbow. Their other option was amputation. Paul was flown to Los Angeles, where his arm was set at an angle—just under 90 degrees—that allowed him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him nearly a year and a half to recover.
Guitar builderIn 1940, Les Paul created a prototype instrument, a one-off solid-body electric guitar known as "The Log", which he fashioned from a four-foot wooden board. The Log was built after-hours by Paul at the Epiphone guitar factory, and is one of the first solid-body electric guitars.
Earlier solid-body electric guitars include Paul Tutmarc's Audiovox electric bass in 1936 and Rickenbacker's guitars of the 1930s. In 1948 Paul A. Bigsby built a custom solid-body electric guitar for Merle Travis, and c. 1949 he built one for Les Paul In 1948 Leo Fender created his own Fender "Esquire".
Although Paul had approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with his idea of a solid-body electric guitar in 1941, it showed no interest until Fender began marketing its Esquire and Broadcaster guitars in 1950.
Gibson's Ted McCarty was the chief designer of the guitar later dubbed the Gibson Les Paul, and entered into a promotional and financial arrangement with Les Paul, paying him a royalty on sales. Paul made design suggestions such as a change to the tailpiece. The guitar went on sale in 1952.
Problems with the strength of the body and neck made Paul dissatisfied with the new Gibson guitar. This, and a pending divorce from Mary Ford, led to Paul ending his endorsement and use of his name on Gibson guitars until 1966, by which time his divorce was completed.
A less-expensive version of the Les Paul guitar is manufactured for Gibson's Epiphone brand.
Paul continued to seek technical improvements, although they were not always successful commercially. For example, in 1962, Paul was issued US Patent No. 3,018,680, for a pickup in which the coil was physically attached to the strings.
One of Paul's innovations became somewhat successful; unfortunately, it was not to his benefit. In the mid-1940s, he introduced an aluminum guitar with the tuning mechanisms below the bridge. As it had no headstock, the string attachments were at the nut, it was the first "headless" guitar. Unfortunately, Paul's guitar was so sensitive to the heat from stage lights that it would not keep tune. This style was further developed by others, most successfully Ned Steinberger.
Multitrack recordingIn the 1940s, Paul was unhappy with the way his records sounded. He felt that his sound was not different from anyone else's. This thought struck him when his mother complimented him on a song she had heard on the radio, when in fact she had heard George Barnes, not Paul. During the 1930s and 1940s, Paul experimented with techniques in private for many years before demonstrating them for others. He put his sound into a Bing Crosby song, "It's Been a Long, Long Time," which was a number-one single in 1945.
After a recording session, Crosby suggested that Paul build a recording studio so he could produce the sound he wanted. Paul started his studio in the garage of his home on North Curson Street in Hollywood. The studio drew many vocalists and musicians who wanted the benefit of his expertise. His experiments included microphone placement, track speed, and recording overdubs. These methods resulted in a clarity previously unheard in this type of multitrack recording. People started to consider his recording techniques as instruments—as important to production as a guitar, bass, or drums.
In 1949, Crosby gave him one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel to reel tape recorders. Capitol Records released "Lover ", which had begun as an experiment in the garage with Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some recorded at half-speed, hence "double-fast" when played back at normal speed for the master. This was the first time he used multitracking in a recording, though he had been shopping his multitracking technique unsuccessfully since the 1930s. His early multitrack recordings were made with acetate discs. He recorded a track onto a disk, then recorded himself playing another part with the first. He built the multitrack recording with overlaid tracks rather than parallel ones as he did later. By the time he had a result that satisfied him, he had discarded some five hundred recording disks.
He built a disc-cutter assembly based on automobile parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. He used the acetate disc setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he used magnetic tape, he could take his recording equipment on tour, making episodes for his fifteen-minute radio show in his hotel room. He worked with Ross Snyder on the design of the first eight-track recording deck built for him by Ampex for his home studio.
Paul invented Sound on Sound recording using this machine by placing an additional playback head, located before the conventional erase/record/playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track. This was a mono tape recorder with just one track across the entire width of quarter-inch tape; thus, the recording was "destructive" in the sense that the original recording was permanently replaced with the new, mixed recording. He eventually enhanced this by using one tape machine to play back the original recording and a second to record the combined track. This preserved the original recording.
In 1952, he invented the flange effect, where a sound phases in and out in harmonic tone. The first example of this can be heard on his song "Mammy's Boogie".
Paul bought the first Ampex 8-track recorder in 1957. Rein Narma built a custom 8-channel mixing console for him. The mixing board included in-line equalization and vibrato effects. He named the recorder "The Octopus" and the mixing console "The Monster". The name "octopus" was inspired by comedian W. C. Fields who was the first person Paul played his multi-tracked guitar experiments to. "He came to my garage to make a little record," Les recalled. "I played him the acetate of 'Lover' that I'd done. When he heard it, he said, 'My boy, you sound like an octopus.'"
Their hits included "How High the Moon", "Bye Bye Blues", "Song in Blue", "Don'cha Hear Them Bells", "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise", and "Vaya con Dios". The songs were recorded with multiple tracks where Ford harmonized with herself and Paul played several guitars.
Like Crosby, they used the recording technique known as close miking where the microphone is less than from the singer's mouth. This produces a more intimate, less reverberant sound than when a singer is or more from the microphone. When using a pressure-gradient microphone, it emphasizes low-frequency sounds in the voice due to the microphone's proximity effect and gives a more relaxed feel because the performer is not working as hard. The result is a singing style which diverged from the unamplified theater style of the musical comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.
Radio and television programsPaul had hosted a 15-minute radio program, The Les Paul Show, on NBC Radio in 1950, featuring his trio and his electronics, recorded from their home and with gentle humor between Paul and Ford bridging musical selections, some of which had already been successful on records, some of which anticipated the couple's recordings, and many of which presented re-interpretations of such jazz and pop selections as "In the Mood", "Little Rock Getaway", "Brazil", and "Tiger Rag". Over ten of these shows survive among old-time radio collectors today.
The show also appeared on television a few years later with the same format, but excluding the trio and retitled The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show with "Vaya Con Dios" as the theme song. Sponsored by Warner–Lambert's Listerine mouthwash, it was aired on NBC television during 1954–1955, and then syndicated until 1960. The show aired five times a day, five days a week for only five minutes long, and therefore was used as a brief interlude or fill-in in programming schedules. Since Paul created the entire show himself, including audio and video, he maintained the original recordings and was in the process of restoring them to current quality standards until his death.
During his radio shows, Paul introduced the fictional "" device, which multiplies anything fed into it, such as a guitar sound or a voice. It was Paul's way of explaining how his single guitar could be multiplied to become a group of guitars. The device even became the subject of comedy, with Ford multiplying herself and her vacuum cleaner with it so she could finish the housework faster. Later, Paul created a real Les Paulverizer that he attached to his guitar. The invention allowed Paul to access pre-recorded layers of songs during live performances so he could replicate his recorded sound on stage.
Later careerIn 1965, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally. He and Ford had divorced at the end of 1964 after she got tired of touring. Paul's most recognizable recordings from then through the mid-1970s were an album for London Records/Phase 4 Stereo, Les Paul Now, on which he updated some of his earlier hits ; and two albums comprising a meld of jazz and country improvisation with guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, backed by some of Nashville's celebrated studio musicians, Chester and Lester and Guitar Monsters, for RCA Victor.
He played at slower tempos with a large pick that was easier to hold. In 2006, at the age of 90, he won two Grammy Awards at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He also performed every Monday night with guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Paul Nowinski, and guitarist Frank Vignola and for a few years, pianist John Colianni. Paul, Pallo, and Nowinski performed at Fat Tuesdays and at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway. In 1997, Chuck Mangione did a session with Les Paul. Mangione is told of how he beat out Les for Album of the Year.
In 1969 Paul produced the album Poe Through the Glass Prism for RCA. The album featured songs based on Edgar Allan Poe's writing by the northeastern Pennsylvania band the Glass Prism. The album produced a single titled "The Raven" that appeared on Billboard's Hot 100.
Composer Richard Stein sued Paul for plagiarism, charging that Paul's "Johnny " was taken from Stein's 1937 song "Sanie cu zurgălăi". In 2000, a cover version of "Johnny" by Belgian musical group Vaya Con Dios that credited Paul prompted another action by the Romanian Musical Performing and Mechanical Rights Society.
Personal lifeLes Paul married Virginia Webb in 1937. They had two children, Russell , and Gene, who was nicknamed after actor-songwriter Gene Lockhart. After getting divorced in 1949, he married Mary Ford. The best man and matron of honor were the parents of guitarist Steve Miller, whose family was from Milwaukee. Paul was Miller's godfather and his first guitar teacher. Ford gave birth to their first child on November 30, 1954, but the girl was born prematurely and died when she was four days old. They adopted a girl, Colleen, in 1958, and their son, Robert, was born the following year. Paul and Ford divorced in December 1964.
Paul and Ford maintained a house in Mahwah, New Jersey, and after their divorce Paul lived there until his death,. In 1995, Paul established the Les Paul Foundation, which was designed to remain dormant until his death. The mission of the Foundation is to honor and share the life, spirit and legacy of Les Paul by supporting music education, engineering, and innovation as well as medical research.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Les Paul among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
DeathOn August 12, 2009, Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York. After hearing about his death, many musicians commented on his importance. Slash called him "vibrant and full of positive energy", while Richie Sambora called him a "revolutionary in the music business". The Edge said, "His legacy as a musician and inventor will live on and his influence on rock and roll will never be forgotten." On August 21, 2009, he was buried in Prairie Home Cemetery, Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Awards and honorsIn 2007, he was given the National Medal of Arts from U.S. President George W. Bush.
He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his development of the solid-body electric guitar. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Big Band & Jazz Hall of Fame, the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame, and the New Jersey Hall of Fame. In 1988, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by guitarist Jeff Beck, who said, "I've copied more licks from Les Paul than I'd like to admit."
Two of his songs were entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame: "How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios". In 1976, he and Chet Atkins received the Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental. In 2005, he won Best Pop Instrumental for "Caravan" and Best Rock Instrumental for "69 Freedom Special."
In 1983, he received a Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement. In 2001, he was honored with the Special Merit/Technical Grammy Award, which recognizes "individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of audio technology," a select award given to masters of audio innovation including Thomas Alva Edison, Leo Fender, and Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick. In 2004, he received an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in Engineering and a Lifetime Achievement in Music Education from the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music.
In 1960, he and Mary Ford received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2009, he was named one of the top ten electric guitarists of all time by Time magazine and two years later the eighteenth greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. During the same year, his name was added to the Nashville Walk of Fame.
Concerts and exhibitionsIn July 2005, a 90th-birthday tribute concert was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. After performances by Steve Miller, Peter Frampton, Jose Feliciano and a number of others, Paul was presented with a commemorative guitar from the Gibson Guitar Corporation. Three years later, at a tribute concert at the State Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, he received the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's American Music Masters Award. On June 9, 2015, a yearlong celebration of Paul's 100th birthday kicked off in Times Square with performances by musicians including Steve Miller, Jose Feliciano, and Neal Schon, a memorabilia exhibition, and a proclamation from the Les Paul Foundation declaring June 9 as Les Paul Day.
In 2007, the biographical film Les Paul Chasing Sound was aired on the public television series American Masters. The film contained interviews with Les Paul, performances by his trio on his 90th birthday, and interview commentary and performances by other musicians.
In June 2008, an exhibit showcasing his legacy and featuring items from his personal collection opened at Discovery World in Milwaukee. The exhibit was facilitated by a group of local musicians under the name Partnership for the Arts and Creative Excellence. Paul played a concert in Milwaukee to coincide with the opening of the exhibit. Paul's hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, opened a permanent exhibit titled "The Les Paul Experience" at the Waukesha County Museum in June 2013. The exhibit features artifacts on loan from the Les Paul Foundation. A self-guided tour of Les Paul's Waukesha was created by the Les Paul Foundation.
In 2009, the concert film Les Paul Live in New York was aired on public television showing Les Paul performing on his 90th birthday at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York and in archival clips.
- A peaked at No. 2 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts
- Feedback – compilation
- Les Paul Trio – compilation
- Hawaiian Paradise
- The New Sound
- Les Paul's New Sound, Volume 2
- Bye Bye Blues!
- Gallopin' Guitars – compilation
- The Hit Makers!
- Les and Mary
- Time to Dream
- Lover's Luau
- The Hits of Les and Mary – compilation
- Bouquet of Roses
- Warm and Wonderful
- Swingin' South
- Fabulous Les Paul and Mary Ford
- Les Paul Now!
- Guitar Tapestry
- The Guitar Artistry of Les Paul
- The World is Still Waiting for the Sunrise – compilation
- The Best of Les Paul with Mary Ford – compilation
- Chester and Lester – with Chet Atkins
- Guitar Monsters – with Chet Atkins
- Les Paul and Mary Ford – compilation
- Multi Trackin'
- All-Time Greatest Hits – compilation
- The Very Best of Les Paul with Mary Ford
- Famille Nombreuse – compilation
- The World Is Waiting – compilation
- – compilation
- All-Time Greatest Hits – compilation
- Their All-Time Greatest Hits – compilation
- Les Paul: The Legend and the Legacy
- 16 Most Requested Songs – compilation
- The Complete Decca Trios – Plus – compilation
- California Melodies
- Les Paul – The Legendary Fred Waring Broadcasts
- Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played
- Les Paul and Friends: A Tribute to a Legend
- "It's Been a Long, Long Time"—Bing Crosby with Les Paul & His Trio, #1 on Billboard Pop singles chart, 1 week, December 8
- "Rumors Are Flying"—The Andrews Sisters with Les Paul and Vic Schoen & His Orchestra
- "This Can't Be Love"//"Up And At 'Em"—The Les Paul Trio, V-Disc 664A
- "Guitar Boogie"
- "Lover "
- "What Is This Thing Called Love?"
- "Suspicion"—as Rhubarb Red with Fos Carling
- "Dry My Tears"/"Cryin'"
- "Little Rock Getaway"
- "Tennessee Waltz"—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #1, Cashbox
- "Mockin' Bird Hill"—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #1, Cashbox
- "How High The Moon"—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #1, Billboard Pop singles chart, 9 weeks, April 21 – June 16; #1, Cashbox, 2 weeks; #2, R&B chart
- "I Wish I Had Never Seen Sunshine"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise"—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #2, Billboard; #3, Cashbox
- "Just One More Chance"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Jazz Me Blues"
- "Jingle Bells"
- "Tiger Rag"—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #2, Billboard; #8, Cashbox
- "I'm Confessin' "—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "In the Good Old Summertime"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Smoke Rings"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Meet Mister Callaghan", #5, Billboard
- "Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Lady of Spain"
- "My Baby's Coming Home"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Bye Bye Blues"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "I'm Sitting on Top of the World"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Vaya Con Dios"—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #1, Billboard Pop singles chart, 11 weeks, August 8 – October 3, November 7–14; #1, Cashbox, 5 weeks
- "Johnny "—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #15, Billboard; #25, Cashbox
- "Don'cha Hear Them Bells"—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #13, Billboard; #28, Cashbox
- "The Kangaroo", #25, Billboard; #23, Cashbox
- "I Really Don't Want To Know"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "I'm A Fool To Care"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Whither Thou Goest"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Mandolino"—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #19, Billboard
- "Song in Blue"—Les Paul & Mary Ford, #17, Cashbox
- "Hummingbird"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Amukiriki "—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Magic Melody"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Texas Lady"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Nuevo Laredo"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Cinco Robles "—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Put a Ring on My Finger"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "All I Need Is You"—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Jura "—Les Paul & Mary Ford
- "Love Sneakin' Up on You"—Les Paul, Joss Stone & Sting