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Paul, Les, 1915-2009 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Paul, Les, 1915-2009

Legendary Guitarist and Electronics Innovator

Paul, Les, 1915-2009 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Legendary guitarist and electronics innovator Les Paul (1915-2009) helped push a simple stringed instrument beyond its acoustic limits. The Les Paul Model Gibson guitar, a solid-body electric guitar introduced in 1952, became the driving force behind the sweeping changes in popular music of the late 20th century, powering everything from blues and Southern rock to alternative and metal. Paul also accelerated the advancement of studio recording through innovations such as sound-on-sound, overdubbing, reverberation effects and multi-tracking.

Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Paul began playing his first instrument, the harmonica, as a student at Park School after seeing a ditch digger playing one on the street. He organized his first band, the Junior Optimist "Red Hot Ragtime Band," when he was 14-years old. The "Red Hot Red," as Paul became known, played at dances, beach parties and lake resorts. Paul's mother encouraged him to learn another instrument, and after a fling with the banjo, Paul took up the guitar.

Paul was fascinated with sound and began experimenting with building a solid body guitar while still in school. His search for a long sustain led him to create a guitar using a piece of rail from a railroad track. A copy is on display at Milwaukee's Discovery World Museum.

Paul was soon playing guitar with Rube Tronson's Cowboys and, at age 17, dropped out of high school to join Sunny Joe Wolverton's radio band in St. Louis. By 1934, Paul was in Chicago doing a hillbilly act as “Rhubarb Red,” a stage name given to him by Wolverton, and a separate jazz act as Les Paul.

Meanwhile, dissatisfied with the style and capabilities of 1930s-era guitars, Paul started experimenting with his own designs. Paul believed that a solid body guitar could sound better than a hollow body model. In 1941, Paul built his solid body electric guitar prototype with a 4” by 4” block of wood to which he attached an Epiphone guitar neck and nicknamed it "The Log." During the 1940s, Paul approached Gibson Guitars with his ideas for a solid body electric guitar, but the company expressed little interest in Paul's design until the early 1950s, when Gibson approached Paul to help launch their prototype. The Les Paul Model Gibson guitar debuted in 1952. Visit the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum to view a Log on display.

By this time Paul was at the top of his career, despite a debilitating automobile accident in 1948, that left his right arm set at a permanent right angle. In 1947, experimenting in his garage, Paul developed a version of the song "Lover," which featured eight guitars, all played by himself and recorded on top of each other. This marked the beginning of multi-track recording.

Along with his wife, Colleen Summers who later changed her name to Mary Ford, Paul went on to record dozens of hits and to star in a television show, the "Les Paul and Mary Ford Show," from 1953 to 1960. Their biggest hits included "How High the Moon" (1951) and "Vaya Con Dios" (1953).

In 1964, Paul and Ford divorced and Paul went into semi-retirement from music, after suffering from a number of health problems. He experienced two broken eardrums, and a minor stroke in 1975, was followed by a heart attack.

In 1977, Paul recorded a Grammy award-winning album of instrumental duets with Chet Atkins called "Chester and Lester," but he was soon side-lined again by heart problems. In 1980, Paul underwent one of the first quintuple-heart bypass operations.

In 1984, Paul began a regular series of Monday night appearances at Fat Tuesday's club in New York. Then four years later, Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1996, Paul was awarded the John Smithson Bicentennial Medal from the Smithsonian Institution.

Paul continued to perform every Monday night, while indulging his curiosity in a basement workshop at his home in New Jersey.

Les Paul died on August 12, 2009, in White Plains, New York. He was 94.

Note: According to the Les Paul Foundation, Les Paul died on August 12, 2009. All major news media recorded his death as August 13, 2009.