Former Beatle Paul McCartney tries out a custom-made left-handed "Les Paul Lite" guitar presented by Paul himself, in New York City on May 1, 1988. Gibson Guitars began producing the Les Paul guitar in 1952.
Paul and blues guitarist B.B. King put their heads together during a jam session at the third anniversary celebration of the B.B. King Blues Club and Grill in New York's Times Square, June 17, 2003. Paul holds King's signature guitar, "Lucille," which he played.
Paul and Chet Atkins (left) are presented Grammies by Dolly Parton and Freddie Fender at 19th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 19, 1977. Paul continued to win awards for his music well into the later years of his life. He was in the hospital in February 2006 when he learned he had won two Grammys for an album released after his 90th birthday, Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played.
Music legend Les Paul has died, succumbing to complications from pneumonia a week after his 94th birthday.
Best-known today for the electric guitar that bears his name, Paul was a major star in his own right in the 1940s and '50s — hosting radio shows and scoring numerous hits with his wife at the time, Mary Ford. He was also a pioneer of the electric guitar and multitrack recording.
But Les Paul was first and foremost a musician. His understanding of music — and especially the guitar — enabled him to dream about electrifying his instrument and recording it in layers. But he could play.
"It's like a butterfly," said Jeff Beck. "Just lightning speed, but accurate and musical."
Beck — who's done some pretty fierce picking on HIS Les Paul guitar — offered words of tribute for a promotional CD released to celebrate his hero's 90th birthday.
"I used to sit there and drool over how he did things," Beck said. "Just hitting the notes and letting three fingers peel off each of the strings. (He) could do amazing things with that. He had it all."
It All Started On The ... Harmonica?
Les Paul's first instrument was a harmonica, growing up in Waukesha, Wisc. He was born Lester William Paulfuss and he was a born entertainer. At the age of eight, he was making money, as he told me in 1996.
"I would go out there and stand on a table — play at the Kiwanis Club and make five dollars singing cowboy songs playing the harmonica. But my love — my love — was with Earl Hines and Coleman Hawkins," Paul said.
He heard those jazz players on the radio. Paul moved to Chicago and landed his own radio shows — playing country in the morning for one station and jazz at night for another.
"When I heard Art Tatum; when I heard Fats Waller; when I heard all these other great players, I knew that jazz is where I'd like to go," Paul said. "And do you know, I dropped from $1,000 a week as a country singer down to $5 a week as a jazz player."
And that was Les Paul's conundrum — and the arc of his career: popular entertainer or musical innovator? Performer or tinkerer? His father was an auto mechanic and some of that must have rubbed off. Paul traces it back even further.
"Back to when I was in my crib and the train went by," recounted Paul. "And I says, 'When that train reaches that speed, my bay window is moving, Mom.'"
Les Paul delighted in telling stories of his discoveries: he took the diaphragm out of a telephone hand set and wired it to his radio to make his voice come out of the speaker; he made his own disc cutter out of a Cadillac flywheel. In 1941, Paul constructed his famous "Log," as it was called — a four-by-four piece of lumber with strings and a pickup. While others were also experimenting, it was his first solid body electric guitar. It didn't go over so well — the story goes that when he took it to Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company, they laughed him out of the building. So he continued working on it at the same time he was experimenting with something called "Sound on Sound."
Early Experiments In Multitracking
Before he ever had a tape recorder, Paul would record a guitar part onto a disc — then play that part back while playing a second part along with it — and record them both onto a second disc. He'd repeat the process over and over. The Les Paul Sound was born and in 1947, he scored a hit with "Lover."
Les Paul got his first tape recorder from Bing Crosby after World War II. Paul went to the Ampex Corporation, which had been working with the Navy on developing multiple track data recording. Paul's musician's ears told him he could use it for something else. He built a multitrack music studio in his home.
In 1949, Paul married singer Colleen Summer. He changed her name to Mary Ford and together — at home — they created million-selling records: "How High The Moon," "Vaya con Dios," and "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise." The radio show they did — Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home ran for seven years.
But there was a downside to success. Mary wanted more of a home life; Les was obsessed with music. They divorced. Then, paradoxically, Les retired from the business for ten years. He made his comeback in 1974 with an old friend, Chet Atkins. The record they made together, Chester and Lester won Les Paul his first Grammy.
A Return to His True Love
A decade later — at the age of 69 — Les Paul began performing regularly at a New York jazz club.
"All my life I was torn between being commercial and playing jazz," Paul said in 1996.
It was a gig he kept — at different clubs — almost until the end. He played well into his 90s, when arthritis slowed the lightning fingers. But for him, the most important thing was connecting with people in the audience.
"I never go to my dressing room," said Paul. "I go right off that stage and I go over and talk to 'em at the bar, at the tables. I think the most important thing to do is to get out there and do what you were put on this Earth to do. And I know mine was to love the guitar and play it and to be with other people."