Though he had a long and successful pop-jazz career, both with and without singer Mary Ford (born Colleen Summer, July 7, 1928, Pasadena, California; died September 30, 1977), guitarist Les Paul was of paramount importance to rock & roll as the creator of the solid-body electric guitar and as a pioneer in modern recording techniques such as electronic echo and studio multitracking.
Having learned harmonica, guitar, and banjo by age 13, Paul was playing with midwestern semipro country & western bands. He moved to Chicago in his late teens and became a regular on WLS. He then concentrated on performing for a few years before taking over the house band at WJJD in 1934, and he later became something of a hillbilly star under the pseudonyms Hot Rod Red and, later, Rhubarb Red. He formed the Les Paul Trio —which included Chet Atkins' brother Jimmy on rhythm guitar and vocals and Ernie Newton on bass —in 1936, and with them moved to New York in 1937. They became regulars on bandleader Fred Waring's NBC radio show and stayed with Waring's Pennsylvanians orchestra for five years.
Around this time, Paul began seriously thinking about revolutionizing the guitar. He had become interested in electronics at age 12, when he built a crystal radio set. He built his first guitar pickup from ham radio headphone parts in 1934, and by 1941 he had built the first prototypical solid-body electric guitar, a four-foot wooden board with strings, pickup, and a plug, which he called the "Log" and still uses to test against other guitars.
Meanwhile, in New York, Paul's musical aspirations moved toward jazz. He jammed informally with such greats as Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster, and others, including electric (hollow-body) guitarist Charlie Christian. Paul left Waring in 1941, spent a year as music director for two Chicago radio stations, and moved to L.A. In 1942, he was drafted and worked for the Armed Forces Radio Service, playing behind Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Johnny Mercer, Kate Smith, and others. Upon his discharge in 1943, he worked as a staff musician for NBC radio in L.A. He backed Bing Crosby with his trio and toured with the Andrews Sisters. With Crosby's encouragement, Paul built his first recording studio in his L.A. garage in 1945. There he began to pioneer such now-standard recording techniques as close microphone positioning ("close-miking"), echo delay, and multitracking. In 1948 he broke his right elbow in an auto accident and had it reset at a special angle so he could still play guitar.
In the late '40s, Paul met and married singer Mary Ford, and they began recording together —unsuccessfully at first —for Decca and Columbia. After moving to Capitol, they had a long string of hits, including "Mockin' Bird Hill" (#3, 1951), "How High the Moon" (#1, 1951), "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" (#3, 1951), and "Vaya Con Dios" (#1, 1953). These recordings —among the earliest multitracked pop songs —featured Ford's voice answering Paul's "talking" guitar. Paul also had some instrumental hits on his own: "Nola" (#9, 1950), "Whispering" (#7, 1951), "Tiger Rag" (#6, 1952), and "Meet Mister Callaghan" (#5, 1952). The couple's hits —individual and otherwise —stopped in 1961; two years later Paul and Ford were divorced. Ford died of diabetes in 1977.
By that time, Paul's interests had shifted to experimenting and innovating. He built the Les Paul Recording Guitar in the early '50s and used it on his own recordings, not allowing Gibson to market that model until 1971. Since they were first marketed in May 1952, Les Paul Gibsons have been known for their "hot" pickups, "fatter" tone, and sustaining capacity, as compared to the twangier electric guitars of Leo Fender.
In the early '50s, Paul built the first 8-track tape recorder, which helped pioneer multitrack recording, and he invented "sound-on-sound" recording, which has since become known as overdubbing. His other inventions include the floating bridge pickup, the electrodynamic pickup (both patented), the dual-pickup guitar, the 14-fret guitar, and various types of electronic transducers used both in guitars and recording studios.
In 1974 Paul returned to music making, and three years later had a hit LP in the Grammy-winning Chester and Lester, a collaboration with country guitarist Chet Atkins. A 1980 documentary, The Wizard of Waukesha, opened and closed with scenes of Les Paul in the late '70s, still playing guitar, demonstrating his latest invention: a little box called the "Les Paulverizer," a device that could record, play back, and allow the musician to talk to anyone onstage, and which made his guitar sound like something that had inhaled laughing gas.
Paul has remained active, recording with Al DiMeola (on the latter's Splendido Hotel) and Manhattan Transfer's Janice Siegel (with whom he recorded her version of "How High the Moon" for her solo LP Experiments in Light). In 1988 Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. From 1984 until 1996, Paul continued to appear once a week at Fat Tuesday's in New York; he eventually moved his weekly gig to the Iridium club near Lincoln Center, where he continues to play. Slowed only slightly by arthritis, he remains an American institution. In 2001 he received a Grammy for his technical achievements.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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