Les Paul: 1915-2009
By Jeff Tamarkin
If ever there was a musician who deserved a long, happy life, that would be Les Paul. His accomplishments and contributions were numerous and enormous. Not only was Paul instrumental in the development of the solid body guitar, multi-track recording, tape delay and several other hallmarks of the music world as we know it today, he was a guitarist of stunning skill and taste.
Both with his late wife, Mary Ford, and on his own, Paul recorded prolifically, racking up a long string of hit records for the Capitol label beginning in the late 1940s. Les Paul and Mary Fords top-selling sides included How High the Moon (1951) and Vaya Con Dios (May God Be With You) (1953), both of which remained number one on the Billboard charts for many weeks. The man for whom the ubiquitous Gibson Les Paul guitar was named died in White Plains, N.Y., on the morning of August 13. He was 94.
Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisc., on June 9, 1915, Les Paul began his professional career as a guitarist in his early teens. Although Paul started out in the country music field, and first recorded in 1936 under the name Rhubarb Red, he soon switched over to jazz. Paul also enjoyed popularity in the 30s as a radio personality in the Chicago area. He relocated to New York in 1938, where he joined the popular dance orchestra Fred Warings Pennsylvanians.
In 1948, Paul was involved in a debilitating auto accident that resulted in his right arm being set permanently into a position that would allow him to keep picking. He continued to do so for more than 60 years, co-hosting a popular television program with his wife between 1953 and 1960 (they would divorce in 1964) and appearing on radio and in other media. Paul semi-retired in the late 60s, then eased back into work in the 70s before returning to a more prolific performing schedule during the 80s. He maintained a weekly gig first at New Yorks Fat Tuesdays club and, for the past dozen years, the Iridium jazz club, until shortly before his death of complications from pneumonia.
In addition to his undeniable musical skillsPaul influenced generations of rock, jazz, country and blues guitaristsPaul was also credited as an inventor whose work with the solid body electric guitar helped pave the way for rock and roll in the 1950s. Unsatisfied with electrified hollow-body guitars, he designed a rudimentary solid body in 1941. A few years later, he had assembled his first jazz trio, showcasing his blazingly fast but economical solo runs on his creation, as well as his pure tone.
By the end of the 1940s, Paul had also begun experimenting with overdubbing (multi-track) recording techniques, which allowed him to lay down several guitar parts on the same recording or a singer to harmonize with him or herself. The sound-on-sound technique became customary in the art of recording. Paul is also credited with tape delay, which allows for an echo effect to be added to recordings.
Working closely with the Gibson guitar company, Paul in 1952 fashioned what he felt was the first perfect electric guitar, and was rewarded by seeing what became the Gibson Les Paul model remain one of the most popular instruments ever created. The design has undergone only minor alterations since its introduction.
In a way, that too could be said of the man himself. Les Paul always kept up with musics changes, playing with both peers (his 1977 Chester and Lester album with Chet Atkins is considered a classic) and many of those younger musicians who idolized him. A 2005 tribute album found Paul sharing licks with the likes of Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and others, but the distinctive Les Paul style shone through on every track. Pauls honors have been countlessamong them has been induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Famebut few will argue that Les Paul needed any trophies to validate his oversized contribution to 20th century music.