Father of invention

He lent his name to a new solid-body electric guitar, and Les Paul became synonymous with rock 'n' roll's weapon of choice.

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At age 9, Lester Polfuss had already learned to punch new holes in the paper rolls of his mother’s player piano. But by the time he was a teenager nicknamed Red Hot Red, he’d found his real moneymaker: the guitar. Playing for spare change before an audience in the parking lot of the local barbecue, Polfuss tried an experiment: He wedged a phonograph needle into the wood of his Sears Roebuck acoustic and amplified it through the speaker, rigging his first electric guitar and tripling his tips.

That was 70 years ago. In June, Lester Polfuss celebrated his 84th birthday and his 63rd year as a musician named Les Paul. In the ’50s, the Wisconsin-born inventor became synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll’s weapon of choice and forged technological paths that the recording industry has been following ever since. A few of his experiments left an indelible stamp on the sound of pop music. Despite countless run-ins with destruction — a car crash that nearly cost him his right arm, a broken eardrum, quadruple-bypass surgery, arthritis in both hands — Paul still plays every week, presiding over a Manhattan jazz club with his own black Les Paul.

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Les Paul’s lifelong search for the “perfect sound” began in 1936, in the noisy Chicago jazz clubs where he performed with the newly formed Les Paul Trio. Paul was always out jamming, and it was during these sessions, in the company of loud bar patrons and brass instruments, that he began toying with the idea of a solid-body electric guitar. He began by modifying his own Epiphone semi-hollow electric guitar.

In 1938, at age 22, Paul moved to New York City with his wife, Virginia Webb
Paul. His trio played on a popular national radio variety show, where he
developed showmanship and style to go along with the sizzling licks he was
perfecting at night, jamming uptown in Harlem with jazz greats like Art
Tatum and Roy Eldridge.

In his spare time, he kept tinkering with the tools of his musical trade.
At home, he began cutting records of his radio
performances, and he taught himself how to add parts to his music by
overdubbing. Down on 14th Street, meanwhile, Paul talked his way into
the Epiphone factory, where he worked on a prototype solid-body
electric guitar after hours. He ultimately assembled what came to be known as “the Log,” a
four-inch-thick chunk of lumber that served as a guitar. “You could go out
and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding,” Paul has said of
the Log’s sustain.



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Paul moved his family to Hollywood in 1943 and continued to push his guitar
into the forefront. On songs like the Les Paul Trio’s 1944 recordings of “Begin the
Beguine” and “Dark Eyes,” Paul’s dazzling glissandos are the main event; many
of the spilling runs are played with harmony notes. By 1945, he was playing
with Bing Crosby, and their version of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” became
a No. 1 hit. On the trio’s 1947 cover of “Steel Guitar Rag,” the
boogie-woogie bass lines on Paul’s low E string offer an early glimpse of
rock ‘n’ roll. Occasionally relegated to the rhythm sections of acts like
Dinah Shore and the Andrews Sisters, Paul grew more determined to
electronically amplify his guitar and make it a real lead instrument.

By 1946, on Crosby’s advice, Paul had built a home studio and was recording
his own masters for record companies. He took his Log to Gibson around the
same time, and was politely shown the door. “They called it a broomstick
with a pickup on it,” he later told Guitar Player magazine. So he pushed on
with his sound experiments. He replaced the standard studio echo chamber
with his own electronic echo, created by his guitar. He mastered overdubbing
techniques. In 1947, he took the first fruit of this labor, “Lover,” to
Capitol Records. Paul had created a sonic carnival with countless layers of
rhythm and lead guitars, experimenting with microphones and recording speed,
synthesizing new tones. That he had done it at all was astounding; that he
had done it at home made the recording a true wonder. Capitol could only
call it “the New Sound.”

Paul was becoming involved with his new singer, Colleen Summers, whom he
renamed Mary Ford. In 1948, their convertible slipped on ice on Route 66
outside Oklahoma City, crashing through a guardrail and dropping 20 feet
into a frozen creek bed. Ford, who had been driving, broke her pelvis; Paul’s
right arm was shattered in three places. One doctor suggested
amputation, and there was a consensus that Paul would never play guitar
again. Doctors grafted bone from his leg into his arm and rebuilt his elbow
with a steel plate, which had to be locked into place. Paul had them set it
at a 90 degree position, thumb pointed in, so he could play his instrument.
The arm would be in one cast after another for the next 18 months.

During Paul’s convalescence, Crosby had dropped by with a gift: one of the
first reel-to-reel tape recorders made by Ampex. While Paul was on the road
with Ford, he realized that if he added a recording head, he could record
multiple parts, anywhere. The pair began recording on tape. Their first
multi-track hit, a cover of “How High the Moon,” was released in early 1951,
reached No. 1 and went on to sell 1.5 million copies. Paul made a
chorus of Ford’s voice and filled every pause with his refined country-jazz
licks. Ford’s silky vocals put flesh on Paul ‘s studio wizardry, which
included 12 overdubs. No one had ever heard anything like this before;
it was the sound of the future. “Les Paul was the first person to turn me on
to the guitar,” Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman once said. “‘How High the
Moon’ had terrific verve, proof at last that pop could provide stylish,
instrumental inventiveness.”

Les Paul and Mary Ford moved to a big house in New Jersey. To hear how his recordings
sounded to most people, he played his self-pressed discs on a jukebox or
aimed his transmitter at his car radio. The duo churned out more hits,
recorded a radio show each week and also kept up a busy touring schedule,
earning $500,000 in 1951. They had 13 consecutive hits that to date
have sold more than 10 million copies. “What he was doing on those hits
couldn’t have failed to influence any guitarist,” Jimmy Page told Paul biographer
Mary Alice Shaughnessy. In 1953, when “Vaya Con Dios” was No. 1 for 11
weeks, “The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show” appeared on television, with Paul
playing his new gold-top Les Paul solid-body. He had come a long way from
the Log.

This time, a year after Leo Fender had beaten Gibson to the market
with the first truly electric guitar, the Broadcaster, Gibson came knocking on Paul’s door. The solid-body concept itself had many authors. But though it was Fender who first gave the instrument to the world, Paul is nearly always credited as its inventor, something that may be impossible to prove or disprove. One thing, however, remains clear: “You pick up a Les Paul and it’s heavy and it really means something,” as Jeff Beck has said.
“It means business.”

By 1954 Paul had moved on. He was struck with the idea of recording on
separate tracks and blending them together. He commissioned Ampex to build
the first eight-track tape recorder, at his cost. His prodding resulted in a
new technology, later known as “Sel-Sync,” in which a recording head could
simultaneously record a new track and play back previous ones. The concept
allowed for extensive multi-tracking, and without it, the world may have
never known “Pet Sounds,” or “Sgt. Pepper,” or just about anything else
recorded in the last 40 years.

Paul had made his art his life, but it was taking
a toll on his family. The grind of recording and touring was exhausting Ford, and the recording duo was headed for divorce, but there was a cultural force looming that would spell the end of their career even sooner: rock ‘n’ roll.

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Les Paul’s relationship with rock is soaked with irony. The airwaves in the
late ’50s belonged to Little Richard and Elvis; by 1961, the Les Paul guitar
was out of production. But as rock matured in the ’60s, it owed much of its
studio sophistication to advances Paul pioneered. Ultimately, rock placed Paul
in its pantheon, making an uncomfortable god of him. In 1966, he tried
re-recording “How High the Moon” and a cover of Paul Simon’s “Sounds of
Silence,” but neither made much of an impact. His music, like his guitar,
was out of fashion. With sales in continued decline, Gibson was threatening
to phase out the electric guitar, telling him it would be “extinct.”

But Paul had unwittingly made his mark on the next generation of musicians,
and they would not forget him. “We used to start our gigs with the opening
riffs from ‘How High the Moon’,” Paul McCartney told Shaughnessy, Paul’s
biographer. “Everybody was trying to be a Les Paul clone in those days.”
Then, in 1966, a young English blues guitarist named Eric Clapton plugged
his sunburst Les Paul into a Marshall amplifier — the first time anyone had
done so for a recording. With a little help from Paul, Clapton had paved
the way to the next new sound. Perpetuated by guitarists from Jimmy Page to
Slash, the Les Paul and the Marshall remain rock’s signature combination. As a measure of how musicians feel about Paul’s guitars, Clapton in
1988 was still mourning the loss of his prized sunburst two decades earlier:
“It was stolen during rehearsals for Cream’s first gig,” he told Guitar
Player. “It was almost brand new — in the original case with that lovely
purple velvet lining. Just magnificent. I never really found one as good as
that again. I do miss it.”

Les Paul got a new trio together in the ’70s and played a few scattered gigs,
including Carnegie Hall. He recorded a country album with Chet
Atkins, whose fame had eclipsed that of his brother Jimmy, Paul’s early bandmate.
“Chester & Lester” won a Grammy for best country instrumental album in 1976.
The next year Les Paul and Mary Ford were named to the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1983
Paul got a Grammy Achievement Award for his contributions to the recording
industry, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 by Jeff Beck,
who said, “I’ve copied more licks from Les Paul than I’d like to admit.”
Everyone wanted to be on hand when Gibson and the New York Hard Rock Cafe
threw him a 72nd birthday party in 1987. The Smithsonian dedicated a wing of
its American Music Exhibit to him and borrowed the Log from its permanent
home, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

In 1984, Paul started playing the weekly sets in Manhattan that continue to this
day. He appeared at Fat Tuesday’s until the club closed, then moved to the
Iridium, across from Lincoln Center, where I met him before a recent Monday
night gig. His eyes were bright and flashed with mischief as he reminisced
about his earliest experiments, while his right arm was suspended in guitar
position, always at the ready. “I spent my whole early life trying to figure
out how to get those holes in the piano roll,” he said. In his youth, Paul
mastered nearly everything he touched — the harmonica, saxophone, banjo,
guitar. But he conquered neither the piano’s mechanics nor the instrument
itself, and it still gnawed at him. “At that time, the piano was the No. 1 instrument in the world, and the guitar was way down at the bottom of the list.”

Watching him lean lovingly over his guitar as he performs, you realize
everything Paul has achieved springs from his love of his instrument and his
desire to entertain. Like every great guitarist, Paul just wants to play — and
he still cooks, in spite of the fact that most of his right hand and all but
two fingers on his left are arthritic. And he is still experimenting, still
searching for something he has called “the perfect sound,” an electrified
but pure string tone. “You hear that in your head,” he said: a sound unimpeded by
resonating wood, amplification, filtering and harmonics. “Oh, it’s so
complicated,” Paul said of this lifelong pursuit. “Especially a guitar.”

Frank Houston is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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