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Lester William Polsfuss: June 9, 1915‚ÄďAugust 12, 2009


✪ Lester William Polsfuss, known by his stage name 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 prototype, called the Log, served as inspiration for the Gibson Les Paul. Paul taught himself how to play guitar at an early age; and while he is mainly known for jazz and popular music, he also had an early career in country music. He and his wife, singer and guitarist Mary Ford, recorded numerous records, selling millions of copies during the 1950s.

Paul is credited with many musical recording innovations. His early experiments with overdubbing (also known as sound on sound), delay effects such as tape delay, phasing 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 have inspired many guitarists of the present day.

Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss¬†in¬†Waukesha, Wisconsin, to George¬†and Evelyn (Stutz) Polsfuss, both of German ancestry.¬†His only sibling, Ralph, was seven years older. 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 performed as Red Hot Red¬†and Rhubarb Red.

At the age of eight, Paul began playing the harmonica. After learning the piano, he switched to the banjo and guitar. During this time, Paul invented a neck-worn harmonica holder which allowed him to play both sides of the harmonica hands-free while continuing to perform on the banjo and guitar. Paul’s hands-free design is still widely manufactured and used today. By age thirteen, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a¬†country-music¬†singer, guitarist and harmonica player. While playing at Waukesha area drive-ins and¬†roadhouses, Paul began his first experiments with sound. Wanting to make his acoustic guitar heard by more people at the local venues, he wired a¬†phonograph¬†needle to his guitar and connected it to a radio speaker.¬†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.

Paul and Wolverton moved to Chicago in 1934, where they continued to perform country music on radio station¬†WBBM¬†and at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. While in Chicago, Paul learned jazz from the great performers on Chicago’s Southside. During the day, he would play country music as Rhubarb Red on the radio and at night, he would play jazz as Les Paul. He met pianist¬†Art Tatum, whose playing influenced him to continue with the guitar rather than play jazz 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 other bands signed to the¬†Decca lable. During this time, he began adding different sounds and adopted his stage name of Les Paul.

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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 his funeral’s expenses. One of Paul’s prized possessions was a¬†Selmer¬†acoustic guitar given to him by Reinhardt’s widow.

Les Paul married Virginia Webb in 1937.¬†They had two children, Les Paul Jr. (Rusty) (1941‚Äď2015), and Gene (1944), who was named after actor-songwriter¬†Gene Lockhart.

Paul formed a trio in 1937 with rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins¬†(the older half-brother of guitarist¬†Chet Atkins) and bassist/percussionist Ernie “Darius” Newton. They left Chicago for New York in 1938 and¬†landed 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 nearly succumbed to electrocution while jamming in his basement apartment in 1941. During two years of recuperation and recovery, he moved to Chicago where he became the music director for radio stations WJJD and WIND. In 1943, he moved to Hollywood where he performed on radio and formed a new trio.

Paul 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, while performing in his own right. Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists as a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 1944.

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In the summer of 1945, Paul met country-western singer Iris Colleen Summers. They began working together on Paul’s radio show as Rhubarb Red and The Ozark Apple Knockers with Mary Lou. Later Paul suggested Iris use the stage name of¬†Mary Ford. They married in Milwaukee in 1949.

In January 1948, Paul shattered his right arm and elbow among multiple injuries in a near-fatal automobile accident on an icy Route 66 west of¬†Davenport, Oklahoma. Mary Ford was driving their Buick convertible which plunged off the side of a railroad overpass and dropped twenty feet down into a ravine. They were returning from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after visiting family.¬†Doctors at Oklahoma City’s Wesley Hospital told Paul that they could not rebuild his elbow. Their other option was¬†amputation. Instead, Paul was flown to Los Angeles, where his arm was set at an angle‚ÄĒjust over 90 degrees‚ÄĒthat allowed him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him nearly a year and a half to completely recover.

The Log

In the same year, he created a similar prototype instrument, a one-off solid-body electric guitar known as “The Log” which was manufactured utilizing a common construction material often referred as a ‚Äú4×4 stud post” which provided a unique neck-thru design. The ‚Äústud post‚ÄĚ (a 4‚ÄĚ x 4‚ÄĚ section of Douglas Fir) was then equipped with a crude bridge and an electromagnetic pickup, neck and strings. The Log was constructed by Paul after-hours in the New York City¬†Epiphone¬†guitar factory and is one of the first solid-body electric guitars.

Paul approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with his idea of a solid-body electric guitar in 1941, but Gibson showed no interest until Fender began marketing its Esquire and Broadcaster guitars in 1950 (the Broadcaster was renamed the Telecaster in 1952).

Gibson’s¬†Ted McCarty¬†was the chief designer of the guitar, which was based on Paul’s drawings and later dubbed the¬†Gibson Les Paul. Gibson entered into a promotional and financial arrangement with Les Paul, paying him royalties on sales.¬†The guitar went on sale in 1952.

In 1960, sales of the original Les Paul model had dropped, so a more modernistic model was introduced (today called the SG), but then still bearing the Les Paul name. Not liking the new look and severe problems with the strength of the body and neck, Paul was dissatisfied with this new Gibson guitar.

Paul continued to suggest technical improvements, although they were not always successful commercially. In 1962, Paul was issued U.S. patent 3,018,680, for a pickup in which the coil was integrated into the bridge.

Paul was also an original innovator in multi-track recording. He first experimented with sound on sound while in elementary school when he punched holes in the piano roll for his mother’s player piano. In 1946, his mother complimented him on a song she had heard on the radio, when in fact she had heard George Barnes, not Paul. This motivated Paul to spend two years in his Hollywood garage recording studio, creating his unique sound, his New Sound. Paul stunned the music industry with his New Sound in 1948.

Paul recorded several songs with Bing Crosby, most notably “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” which was a number-one single in 1945.

After a recording session, Bing 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 began to consider his recording techniques as instruments‚ÄĒas important to production as a guitar, bass, or drums.

Capitol Records released “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” on which Paul played 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. His early multitrack recordings, including “Lover” and “Brazil” 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.

As a teen he had built a disc-cutter assembly using the flywheel from a¬†Cadillac, a dental belt and other parts from his father’s car repair shop. Years later in his Hollywood garage, 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.

In 1949, Crosby gave Paul one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel to reel tape recorders. 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 onto a new track.

In 1952, Paul 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.”

Observing film recordings inspired Paul to design the stacking of eight tape recorders. He worked with¬†Ross Snyder¬†on the design of the first eight-track recording deck built for him by Ampex for his home studio. 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 to hear Paul play his multi-tracked guitar experiments. “He came to my garage to make a little record (in 1946),” 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.'”

Paul hosted a 15-minute radio program, The Les Paul Show, on NBC Radio in 1950, featuring his trio (himself, Ford and rhythm player Eddie Stapleton) and his electronics. The program was recorded from their home and with gentle humor between Paul and Ford bridging musical selections, some of which had already been successful on records. When Paul used magnetic tape, he could take his recording equipment on tour and make episodes for his fifteen-minute radio show in a hotel room.

During his radio shows, Paul introduced the fictional “Les Paulverizer” 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.¬†

In 1965, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to his studio occasionally. He and Ford divorced at the end of 1964 after she became tired of touring.

As years progressed, Paul played at slower tempos with a large pick that was easier to hold in his arthritic hand. 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 at Manhattan’s¬†Iridium Jazz Club.

In 1995, Paul established the Les Paul Foundation, which was designed to remain dormant until his death. The Les Paul Foundation aims to inspire innovative and creative thinking by sharing the legacy of Les Paul through support of music education, recording, innovation and medical research related to hearing.

On August 12, 2009, Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York. On August 21, 2009, he was interred at the Prairie Home Cemetery in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Paul was inducted into the¬†National Inventors Hall of Fame¬†(2005) for his development of the solid-body electric guitar.¬†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.” He was also inducted into the¬†Songwriters Hall of Fame¬†(2005), the Big Band & Jazz Hall of Fame (1990), the¬†New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame¬†(1996), and the¬†New Jersey Hall of Fame¬†(2010).

Two of his songs entered 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 1960, he and Mary Ford received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  In 2007, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts from U.S. President George W. Bush. In 2009, Paul was named one of the top ten electric guitarists of all time by Time magazine. Two years later he was named the eighteenth greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

A permanent Les Paul exhibit is also located at the Mahwah Historical Museum in Mahwah, New Jersey. ‚ú™