Friday, August 14, 2009

R.I.P.: Les Paul

Les Paul, Guitarist Whose Innovations Paved the Way for Rock 'n' Roll, Dies at 94
by Claudia Luther
Los Angeles Times, August 13, 2009

Les Paul, the virtuoso guitarist, entertainer and relentless innovator whose drive to produce the sounds he wanted from his recordings and instruments helped pave the way for rock 'n' roll, died today. He was 94. Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in New York state, said a spokesperson for the Gibson Guitar Co. He had been in failing health for some time.

Paul was popularly known for a series of hit songs recorded in the 1950s with his wife, singer Mary Ford, including "How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios."

One of the finest pickers on the American music scene, Paul was often cited as a major influence on other guitarists, including Chet Atkins, who called him "one of my idols."

But for many other music fans, it was Paul's innovations that will ensure his legacy. They include an early electric guitar as well as new ways to create multiple tracks and echo effects for recordings, which he used in his recordings with Ford and which were later were broadly adopted by other musicians.

"When most people think of the electric guitar, they think of Les Paul," said Dan Del Fiorentino, historian for the National Assn. of Music Merchants, a trade group for the music-products industry. "He wasn't the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, but he certainly made it famous."

"Without him, it's hard to imagine how rock 'n' roll would be played today," the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, said when Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 for his early influence on rock.

Ironically, the onset of rock 'n' roll -- with its heavy emphasis on the electric guitar -- ended Paul's and his wife's prominence on the music scene. After they divorced in the mid-1960s, Paul continued to record, earning a Grammy in 1976 for "Chester and Lester," an instrumental album recorded with Atkins.

And in 1984, when Paul was nearing 70, he returned to the stage, appearing in clubs in New York City. He was joined in these weekly appearances by a parade of famous musicians, including Keith Richards, Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney, who told Les Paul that when the Beatles started out, they would play Paul-Ford hits in their gigs.

In 2005, as he was turning 90, Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which said "his innovations led to his first solid-body electric guitar in 1941" and also recognized him for pioneering techniques "that transformed music-recording technology."

Many inventors and musicians were trying to figure out how to amplify a guitar as early as the 1920s, including George Beauchamp, whose "Frying Pan" is considered the first real solid-body electric guitar, Doc Kauffman and Adolph Rickenbacker.

Paul was tinkering with his own crude version of an amplified guitar as a teenager. His goal was simply to be better heard on gigs at the local barbecue restaurant in Waukesha, Wis., where he played as Red Hot Red, the Wizard of Waukesha. To amplify the sound, he tried using a phonograph needle, a telephone mouthpiece and a radio speaker. The sound got stronger but, as he told Rick Landers for Modern Guitar magazine in 2005, "I ran smack into the problem of feedback." He realized that the acoustic guitar's hollow body -- which was designed to reverberate the sound of the strings and amplify the sound -- probably wasn't needed if the instrument was hooked up to power.

He tried filling his guitar with socks and shirts and even plaster of Paris, which caused other problems. Years later, he tried attaching electronic pickups and strings to a 4-by-4-inch piece of pine about 18 inches long, which worked well enough but didn't have the graceful look of a guitar. So he sliced a regular guitar in half lengthwise and bolted it to the wood, dubbing the contraption "The Log."

The Log gave Paul the sustained note he was seeking -- he said he could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding.

Among the other important figures in the development of the electric guitar was Leo Fender, an engineer. In 1951, Fender began mass-producing the solid-body Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster), the first practical solid-body electric guitar and the instrument that would soon revolutionize the sound of popular music.

The famed guitar company Gibson also designed a solid-body guitar and, in 1952, released an instrument that was endorsed by Paul, who had by then made a name for himself in music. Various models of Gibson Les Pauls are still in production today.

Electrifying the guitar took the instrument from one used for background rhythm to a driving force in country music, blues, R&B and rock. Even the feedback Paul tried so hard to eliminate became a way for guitarists to create new effects that shocked the generation that had grown up on Paul and Ford's sweet and harmonic music. As Washington Post music writer Richard Harrington noted, the electric guitar "put the boom in the baby boom." It has, as Monica M. Smith, project historian at the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, wrote, "achieved iconic status as a symbol of American culture."

Perhaps even more important than Paul's role in the electric guitar were his recording innovations. To get a fuller sound on some songs, Paul tinkered with one of the first tape recorders to figure out how he could record one track at the same time he was playing back another track. It was the beginning of multi-track recording and sound-on-sound -- without which it would be hard to imagine most of modern recording.

"I'll never understand why I chased sound all my life," Paul told Marc Pachter in a 1997 interview for the Smithsonian Institution. "But I was there chasing it constantly, saying it's got to have a little more of this and a little more of that." He told The Times' music critic Robert Hilburn that his inventions were "conveniences" designed "to help me get the sound I had in my head on record."

After Paul linked up with singer-guitarist Ford in the 1940s, he found a way to get an echo and also overdub Ford's voice and their two guitars, laying multiple layers on a recording. The "new sound," as Paul called it, allowed fresh renderings of songs like "Mockin' Bird Hill," "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," "Bye, Bye, Blues," "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" and "Tiger Rag," as well as their biggest hits, "How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios." At one point, 13 consecutive Paul-Ford tunes sold more than half a million copies. The couple, who married in 1949, became so popular that from 1953 to 1960 they hosted a five-minute, five-day-a-week television show filmed in their home.

Together, they charted nine hits on the Billboard Top 100 from 1955 to 1961. But once rock 'n' roll got going in the 1950s, and especially after Elvis Presley hit the scene, the duo dropped off the pop charts with a speed that left people in the music business stunned.

"It didn't just taper off, the way it did with [Bing] Crosby and hundreds of other artists," Dave Dexter, an A&R man for Capitol Records -- the musical home of Paul and Ford -- told Paul's biographer, Mary Alice Shaughnessy. "It just absolutely stopped."

Les Paul was born Lester William Polfuss on June 9, 1915, the younger son of George Polfuss, who owned a car repair service in Waukesha, and Evelyn Polfuss. The couple separated when Paul was 8. Always curious and musical, Paul would as a child pump his mother's upright player piano, punching holes on the piano roll to make new notes and taping over the holes if he didn't like what came out.

By 9, he learned to play the harmonica by listening to blues and country artists on the radio. Not long after, he paid a few dollars for his first guitar from Sears, Roebuck.

By his late teens, Paul had dropped out of school and was on KMOX radio in St. Louis and then performing in Chicago. During the day, he would play country music using the name Rhubarb Red, and at night would jam in the jazz clubs with his new stage name, Les Paul.

In the late 1930s, he formed a trio with bassist Ernie Newton and Jimmy Atkins, a vocalist and rhythm guitarist who was the half-brother of Chet. It was with the Les Paul Trio that Paul made his way to New York City, where the group played for several years with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians on Waring's radio program. In off hours, Paul would go to Harlem nightclubs where he would sit in with such greats as pianist Art Tatum and guitarist Charlie Christian.

During World War II, Paul entertained the troops as part of the Armed Forces Radio Service. In 1944, he was a last-minute replacement for Nat "King" Cole's guitarist Oscar Moore and played with other leading musicians at Norman Granz's inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles.

He finally achieved his long-sought chance to work with Bing Crosby, backing the crooner on his NBC radio shows and, in 1945, recording "It's Been a Long, Long Time" with Crosby -- which quickly hit No. 1 on the charts.

Paul built his own sound studio in the garage of his Hollywood home, where he recorded many tunes, including the 1946 hit song "Rumors Are Flying" with the Andrews Sisters.

By then, Paul had linked up with singer Colleen Summers, whom he later gave the stage name Mary Ford.

In early 1948, a serious automobile accident badly injured his arm and interrupted his work. As he slowly resumed performing, Paul drew Ford into his act and, by the early 1950s, the couple had mastered the sound that opened the door to their huge popularity. "How High the Moon," which was made with a dozen overdubs, stayed at the top of the charts for more than two months in 1951.

After their divorce in 1964, Paul recorded two albums with Chet Atkins, including "Chester and Lester." Ford died in 1977. Following heart bypass surgery in the early 1980s, Paul began his weekly appearances at Fat Tuesdays in Manhattan and, after it closed, at the Iridium.

Though Paul had hearing aids in both ears and his hands were so arthritic that he could barely hold a pick, he still played with the sensitivity and sweetness that had made him famous -- although, as he wryly commented, he didn't use as many notes.

Paul's first new studio album since 1978 -- a rock-oriented collection featuring him playing with Steve Miller, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Sting and others -- was released in 2005. Paul's original Log is housed at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville; a replica produced by Gibson is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Paul is survived by his three sons, Lester (Rus), Gene and Robert; his daughter, Colleen Wess; longtime friend Arlene Palmer; five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. A private funeral service will be held in New York. A service in Waukesha will be announced at a later date, as will public memorial tributes.
- Luther is a former Times staff writer. Times staff writers Randy Lewis and Dennis McLellan contributed to this report.
Les Paul, Guitar Innovator, Dies at 94
by Jon Pareles
New York Times, August 14, 2009

Les Paul, the virtuoso guitarist and inventor whose solid-body electric guitar and recording studio innovations changed the course of 20th-century popular music, died Thursday in White Plains. He was 94.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, the Gibson Guitar Corporation announced.

Mr. Paul was a remarkable musician as well as a tireless tinkerer. He played guitar with leading prewar jazz and pop musicians from Louis Armstrong to Bing Crosby. In the 1930s he began experimenting with guitar amplification, and by 1941 he had built what was probably the first solid-body electric guitar, although there are other claimants. With his electric guitar and the vocals of his wife, Mary Ford, he used overdubbing, multitrack recording and new electronic effects to create a string of hits in the 1950s.

Mr. Paul's style encompassed the twang of country music, the harmonic richness of jazz and, later, the bite of rock 'n' roll. For all his technological impact, though, he remained a down-home performer whose main goal, he often said, was to make people happy.

Mr. Paul, whose original name was Lester William Polfus, was born on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wis. His childhood piano teacher wrote to his mother, "Your boy, Lester, will never learn music." But he picked up harmonica, guitar and banjo by the time he was a teenager and started playing with country bands in the Midwest. In Chicago he performed for radio broadcasts on WLS and led the house band at WJJD; he billed himself as the Wizard of Waukesha, Hot Rod Red and Rhubarb Red.

His interest in gadgets came early. At 10 years old he devised a harmonica holder from a coat hanger. Soon afterward he made his first amplified guitar by opening the back of a Sears acoustic model and inserting, behind the strings, the pickup from a dismantled Victrola. With the record player on, the acoustic guitar became an electric one. Later, he built his own pickup from ham radio earphone parts and assembled a recording machine from a Cadillac flywheel and the belt from a dentist's drill.

From country music Mr. Paul moved into jazz, influenced by players like Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang, who were using amplified hollow-body guitars to play hornlike single-note solo lines. He formed the Les Paul Trio in 1936 and moved to New York, where he was heard regularly on Fred Waring's radio show from 1938 to 1941.

In 1940 or 1941 -- the exact date is unknown -- Mr. Paul made his guitar breakthrough. Seeking to create electronically sustained notes on the guitar, he attached strings and two pickups to a wooden board with a guitar neck. "The log," as he called it, was probably the first solid-body electric guitar and became the most influential one. "You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding," Mr. Paul once said.

The odd-looking instrument drew derision when he first played it in public, so he hid the works inside a conventional-looking guitar. But the log was a conceptual turning point. With no acoustic resonance of its own, it was designed to generate an electronic signal that could be amplified and processed -- the beginning of a sonic transformation of the world's music.

Mr. Paul was drafted in 1942 and worked for the Armed Forces Radio Service, accompanying Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith and others. When he was discharged in 1943, he was hired as a staff musician for NBC radio in Los Angeles. His trio toured with the Andrews Sisters and backed Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, with whom he recorded the hit "It's Been a Long, Long Time" in 1945. Crosby encouraged Mr. Paul to build his own recording studio, and so he did, in his garage in Los Angeles.

There he experimented with recording techniques, using them to create not realistic replicas of a performance but electronically enhanced fabrications. Toying with his mother's old Victrola had shown him that changing the speed of a recording could alter both pitch and timbre. He could record at half-speed and replay the results at normal speed, creating the illusion of superhuman agility. He altered instrumental textures through microphone positioning and reverberation. Technology and studio effects, he realized, were instruments themselves.

He also noticed that by recording along with previous recordings, he could become a one-man ensemble. As early as his 1948 hit "Lover," he made elaborate, multilayered recordings, using two acetate disc machines, which demanded that each layer of music be recorded in a single take. From discs he moved to magnetic tape, and in the late 1950s he built the first eight-track multitrack recorder. Each track could be recorded and altered separately, without affecting the others. The machine ushered in the modern recording era.

In 1947 Mr. Paul teamed up with Colleen Summers, who had been singing with Gene Autry's band. He changed her name to Mary Ford, a name found in a telephone book.

They were touring in 1948 when Mr. Paul's car skidded off an icy bridge. Among his many injuries, his right elbow was shattered; once set, it would be immovable. Mr. Paul had it set at an angle, slightly less than 90 degrees, so that he could continue to play guitar.

Mr. Paul, whose first marriage, to Virginia, had ended in divorce, married Ms. Ford in 1949. Together they had a television show, "Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home," which was broadcast from their living room until 1958. They began recording together, mixing multiple layers of her vocals with Mr. Paul's guitars and effects, and the dizzying results became hits in the early 1950s. Among their more than three dozen hits, "Mockingbird Hill," "How High the Moon" and "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" in 1951 and "Vaya Con Dios" in 1953 were million-sellers.

Some of their music was recorded with microphones hanging in various rooms of the house, including one over the kitchen sink, where Ms. Ford could record vocals while washing dishes. Mr. Paul also recorded instrumentals on his own, including the hits "Whispering," "Tiger Rag" and "Meet Mister Callaghan" in 1951-52.

The Gibson company hired Mr. Paul to design a Les Paul model guitar in 1952, and Les Paul models have sold steadily ever since, accounting at one point for half of the company's total sales. Built of a thick layer of maple over a mahogany body, with Mr. Paul's patented pickups, his design is prized for its clarity and sustained tone. It has been used by musicians like Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Slash of Guns 'N' Roses.

In the mid-1950s, Mr. Paul and Ms. Ford moved to a house in Mahwah, N.J., where Mr. Paul eventually installed film and recording studios and amassed a collection of hundreds of guitars.

The couple's string of hits ended in 1961, and they were divorced in 1964. Ms. Ford died in 1977. Mr. Paul is survived by three sons, Gene, Russell and Robert, and a daughter, Colleen. In 1964, Mr. Paul underwent surgery for a broken eardrum, and he began suffering from arthritis in 1965. Through the 1960s he concentrated on designing guitars for Gibson. He invented and patented various pickups and transducers, as well as devices like the Les Paulverizer, an echo-repeat device, which he introduced in 1974. In the late 1970s he made two albums with the dean of country guitarists, Chet Atkins.

In 1981 Mr. Paul underwent one of the first quintuple-bypass heart operations. After recuperating, he returned to performing, though the progress of his arthritis forced him to relearn the guitar. In 1983 he started to play weekly performances at Fat Tuesday's, an intimate Manhattan jazz club. "I was always happiest playing in a club," he said in a 1987 interview. "So I decided to find a nice little club in New York that I would be happy to play in." After Fat Tuesday's closed in 1995, he moved his Monday-night residency to Iridium.

At his shows he used one of his own customized guitars, which included a microphone on a gooseneck pointing toward his mouth so that he could talk through the guitar. In his sets he would mix reminiscences, wisecracks and comments with versions of jazz standards. Guests -- famous and unknown -- showed up to pay homage or test themselves against him. Despite paralysis in fingers on both hands, he retained some of his remarkable speed and fluency. Mr. Paul also performed regularly at jazz festivals through the 1980s.

He recorded a final album, "American Made, World Played" (Capitol), to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2005. It featured guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Sting, Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. The album brought him two Grammy Awards: for best pop instrumental performance and best rock instrumental performance. He had already won Grammy recognition for technical achievements.

In recent years, he said he was working on another major invention but would not reveal what it was. "Honestly, I never strove to be an Edison," he said in a 1991 interview in The New York Times. "The only reason I invented these things was because I didn't have them and neither did anyone else. I had no choice, really."

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