Les Paul — The Entertainer’s Entertainer

March 18, 2012 by  

Les Paul at the Iridium Bar, New York City

Les Paul, (born Lester Polsfuss) was born 91 years ago this week in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It’s been written widely that young Les took a liking to music and things mechanical at a very early age. While quite young, he was very taken by the family player piano. Once he figured out how the punched paper system worked, he figured out where to punch additional holes to enhance the chords and melody of the family piano roll collection.

As he got a little older, he took up guitar and taught himself how to play. He never learned to read music–at least not well, but was very quick to pick up new tunes and could quickly memorize them. He also picked up the harmonica fairly quickly, and then invented a mechanism that allowed him to play the harmonica while simultaneously playing the guitar. His harmonica holder also allowed him to flip the harmonica over so he could play from the backside of it.

He began working professionally before he was ten years old. When he got enough complaints that the patrons at local “watering holes” couldn’t hear him over the din of the room, he thought long and hard and came up with another groundbreaking invention–the amplified guitar. From self-study, he knew the top of his guitar vibrated, and then theorized that a phonograph needle jammed into the top of a guitar would act like the needle moving through a record groove. He took his long-suffering parents’ electric phonograph, and performed the necessary surgery, and came up with a passable electric guitar–years before a commercial electric guitar came to market.

Around this time, he met up with fellow guitarist “Sunny Joe” Wolverton, with whom Les partnered for a few years. Joe taught Les that all kinds of music existed below the first three frets of the guitar–a revelation to the young budding guitarist/inventor, who until that time thought those additional frets were just for show. All the while, Les continued tinkering with his guitars, trying to improve upon the sound. By the early 1930s, Les and Wolverton went their separate ways. Les moved to Chicago and took on several radio personnas: Les Paul, jazz guitarist and Rhubarb Red, hillbilly guitar player. He worked steadily on various radio stations and clubs, while gaining an enviable reputation.

By about 1937 or 1938, Les had built a trio, with a second guitarist (Jimmy Atkins, brother to the soon to be famous Chet Atkins), and a bass player. After getting an audition in an elevator with bandleader Fred Waring, the Les Paul Trio was featured with the Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians Orchestra for several years, featuring the first widely heard electric guitar solos on Waring’s coast-to-coast hookups.

Les recorded with Bing Crosby (It’s Been A Long, Long Time–available on the iTunes Store), with whom he remained very close friends. Bing got Les many advantageous recording sessions, including one with the Andrews Sisters (Rumors are Flying–available on the iTunes Store), that was a huge hit. All the while he was performing, recording, and touring, he continued to work on his various inventions. He continued to refine the amplified guitar, attempting to increase the sustain (how long a note sounded before dying away), reducing feedback, and other technical advances. In 1941, he mounted a guitar neck to a chunk of 4×4 wood, screwed the sides of an old guitar to it, and the famous “Log” was born. The Log was one of the first solid body electric guitars. The neck attached to this chunk of wood, as did the pickups, bridge, and tailpiece, so there was literally no acoustic output whatsoever. Notes sustained longer, feedback was virtually eliminated, yet, with the “wings” attached, it looked to most (and sounded to most) like a regular electric guitar.

By the early 1940s, he had moved to Southern California, where he built his own recording studio. Many top stars came to this studio to record, including Bing Crosby, and later, W.C. Fields who made his last recording in Les Paul’s little studio. Unhappy with the commercial equipment of the day, Les built his own disk recording machine (this being before tape recorders existed), using a flywheel from a Cadillac automobile, because it was so heavy and well-balanced (less chance of speed variation).

In 1944, he joined a group of all-stars to participate in Norman Granz’s first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. Among the featured artists were Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, and countless others. Fortunately, much of this concert was recorded, and one can hear Les and Nat Cole in full battle, trying to top each other, while maintaining a high degree of musicianship and humor. This album is available at Amazon.com.

By 1946, Les had met Colleen Summers, a vocalist and rhythm guitarist with Gene Autry, and after a divorce from his first wife, he and Colleen, whom he renamed Mary Ford, were married in 1949. He spent over a year-and-a-half in the hospital in 1947-1948 after a near-fatal auto accident almost caused him to lose his right arm. He was able to convince his doctor, a fan, to set his arm, using multiple screws, rods, and plates, at the proper angle so he could play his guitar. Just prior to the accident, the results of Les’s first experiments with multitrack recording were released commercially, with the Rodgers and Hart tune, Lover. Les used two disk recorders, going back and forth, laying down track after track, some sped up, some slowed down. It was such a new sound, few know how to describe it–only that they wanted more. As soon as Les recovered from those multiple surgeries, he resumed work in his recording studio, but now he had a vocalist in his wife, Mary Ford. As he laid down multiple layers of guitar and bass, Mary sang multiple parts, expanding upon this “new sound”. From the late 1940s to the mid 1950s, Les Paul and Mary Ford were a household name, they sold millions of records, had a daily 15 minute television show, and toured extensively. Many of their recordings are available at record stores, Amazon.com, and the usual places. Among their most famous are How High the Moon, Whispering, Vaya Con Dios, Lover, Mockingbird Hill, and many others.

Bing Crosby brought back several tape recorders from Germany just after World War II, giving one to Les, who saw the tape recorder as a much better way to make his multiple layer recordings. As his recording techniques improved, he saw many opportunities for improvement, and went to all the major tape recorder manufacturers of the time to get them to make a custom machine for him, with eight individual tracks on a single head, recording on wide (1 inch) recording tape. All but a small company called Ampex said Les was crazy. Ampex was crazy enough to try, and it ultimately spawned a totally new recording technology. They also developed a function that turned part of the recording head into a playback head (the two heads are separated by about an inch) so that one could hear the playback on one or more tracks in perfect synchronization with what was being recorded.

In 1952, after Gibson Guitar Co. of Kalamazoo, Michigan saw companies like Fender coming out with cheaply made solid body guitars, they contacted Les, and worked out a design for a solid body guitar, built to Gibson’s high standards, that was endorsed, and named after Les Paul. While not a big seller through the 1950s and early 1960s, by the mid-late 60s, with rock and roll in full swing, they couldn’t make them fast enough. They are still very much a mainstay in the Gibson stable of guitars.

With the late 1950s and musical tastes changing, Les and Mary became old news. Record sales plummeted. They moved from Capitol to Columbia records, where even the highly skilled artists and repertoire man Mitch Miller (as in “sing along with…”) couldn’t find the right formula to make their records sell. By 1964, it was over–not only professionally, but personally. Les and Mary divorced very publicly, with new allegations in the scandal sheets every week or so (while not getting back together, they renewed their friendship, and spoke on the telephone very often). Mary moved back to California, and Les stopped performing, save for one album he recorded in the late 1960s (Les Paul Now!) on the London (British Decca) label, and worked on his inventions full-time. In that time frame, Les also made his home available to many down-on-their-luck musicians, including guitarists George Barnes and his family, and Thumbs Carlille.

He made a great deal of money with his inventions and was happy doing that work until he had a heart attack in the early 1970s, requiring a quintuple bypass. His doctor told him to get back to work, so, in 1977, he was ready to be coaxed back into the studios by old friend Chet Atkins, with whom they recorded the Grammy-winning album, Chester and Lester. Invigorated by the renewed acclaim, and encouraged by his doctor, Les resumed touring, doing college concerts and such. Sadly, Mary Ford wasn’t around to see the renewed interest in their music, as she passed away in 1976 at age 53 due to complications from diabetes.

In the 1980s, he decided to stay a little closer to home and looked around Manhattan, near his home in Mahwah, NJ, in a house he and Mary built in the early 1950s, for a place to perform. He found a venue, Fat Tuesdays, where he played until it closed, and aside from a few bouts of bad health, has held court at the Iridium bar near Lincoln Center on Monday nights (usually a dead night for performing in New York), doing two shows an evening, to packed houses. As the arthritis in his hands has reduced his ability to play as in his youth, he has added two guitars to his trio to help fill in the parts he can no longer play. At 91 years old, he’s still getting it done, two shows once a week, at the Iridium Bar in New York. His son Rusty videotapes every show, so Les can review it later and look for ways, even now, to improve things. What a life! Musician, entertainer, inventor, visionary. He lived enough for three or four people. When he isn’t performing, he’s in his lab, inventing, and always learning new things.

Ken Nickels, Les Paul, Larry Grinnell. Iridium Bar, New York, about 1998

I saw him in the late 1990s at the Iridium Bar. My cousin (who lived in New York at the time) and I made reservations and got there about 45 minutes early, figuring to get out of the July Manhattan heat, get into the air conditioning, and have a “taste” or two. My cousin Ken noticed it first, and then I saw him. There was a long line at one of the tables near the bar, where Les was holding court, chatting with the patrons, having his picture taken, and signing anything thrust in front of him. Ken and I got in line, only to find out the fellow in front of us was Tommy Shaw, the lead guitarist for the rock group Styx (who later got onstage and played a few numbers with Les–who keeps a guitar on stage for just such a purpose). Ken and I chatted with Les for a few minutes, remembering our uncle Andy Nelson, a former Gibson clinician and friend of Les, who had passed away a few years before. When Andy did his Gibson clinics, he and wife Muriel drove around the country in a huge International Travelall (similar to a Chevy Suburban), hauling an enormous Airstream trailer. Well, when Andy and Muriel hit the New York area to do their own appearances, he kept his trailer at Les Paul and Mary Ford’s home in Mahwah. When Andy and Muriel finished their show, it was back to Les and Mary’s for drinks and tall tales ’till dawn or beyond. When Andy was recovering from some pretty nasty cancer surgery, among the many giants in the musical industry Andy knew as friends, it was Les Paul who called at least every week or two to check up on him. It’s just a little thing that takes even less time, but you remember who was there for you, even by phone, when you were feeling pretty bad. That was the kind of friend Les Paul was to my uncle.

Meanwhile, back at the Iridium, when Les finished the first set, filled with great music, great anecdotes of his time in the entertainment industry, and kidding around with his trio members, he moved to the upstairs bar (so the downstairs bar could be cleaned for the next show), and held court once again. One young kid brought a guitar for him to sign, and I got him to sign the booklet that came with a 4 CD collection of Les Paul and Mary Ford. He signed with a very nice personal message and recalled my uncle Andy. I’ll always cherish it and my memory of that evening.

That evening with Les Paul reminded me of what a great legacy of true entertainers we have lost. Today, when you go to a club or a concert, the performer comes out, does a perfunctory reading of their greatest hit(s), and leaves. That’s not entertainment. That’s phoning it in. When you walk away from a Les Paul show, you know you were entertained. It’s like he was talking directly to you. He made you feel welcome, like you were a guest in his (large) home. It was loose, spontaneous, and lotsa laughs. It almost eased the pain of the $40.00 cover charge and a two drink (at 10 bucks a pop) minimum.

If you are in New York, or are going to be there sometime soon, you need to see Les Paul at the Iridium Bar–every Monday…and hey, he’s 91. Better hurry! Oh, and Happy Birthday Les!!!!

Author’s Note: This piece was written about a year before Les Paul’s death at age 92, in 2009.