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The Musical Legacy of Les Paul: 1915 – 2009
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The Musical Legacy of Les Paul: 1915 – 2009

Reflections on the life of a musical genius who forever changed the world of music.

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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]To the everyday guy and girl on the street the name “Les Paul” immediately brings to mind “the electric guitar.” And further word association leads to “rock ‘n’ roll.” But there’s so much more to this pioneer than that line of connected thought. Within days of the 40th anniversary of the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the recent passing of Les Paul provides an opportunity for an education on how one boy filled with imagination and the spirit of music would go on to change the musical world.

8-year old Lester William Polsfuss from Waukesha, Wisconsin channeled his child-born curiosity into playing the harmonica a construction worker gave him and soon gained the skill to play in school talent contests. But a piano teacher his mother brought in didn’t believe in the prodigy’s ability to learn music sending the country music fan home because he didn’t follow her rigid formal methods. Undeterred by this oversight, young Les continued to express the music within him as well as his emerging ingenuity. His first invention: a neck-worn harmonica holder fashioned from an ordinary metal coat hanger which allowed him to play the instrument hands-free. Here at this young age of 10 it was apparent that innovation would be the trademark of the informally trained musician.

By age 12, Les put his talent to the test playing for tips on Waukesha’s streets. The next year, he’s playing in the local area clubs now armed with his first guitar. At 17, the highly-esteemed performer now known among other stage names as Red Hot Red (check the hair) got the opportunity to join a local country band called Rube Tronson’s Texas Cowboys and it wouldn’t be long before “The Wizard of Waukesha” ditched the high school scene and went big-time professional.

He in the persona of Rhubarb Red took the many instrumental innovations he put together as a teen playing the Waukesha scene and played and recorded all over the 1930s Midwestern radio circuit (from St. Louis to Chicago) branching out into new musical territory like jazz. Settling on the moniker of Les Paul as he musically matured in this environment, he formed a band called the Les Paul Trio with bassist Ernie “Darius” Newton and rhythm guitarist Jimmy Atkins. This led him and his band to New York City where he got to mix it up famous bandleader Fred Waring as well as legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

At this time, the 24-year old’s ongoing inventive refinements on the classic guitar led to what he called “The Log”, a homegrown electric guitar based on a 4 X 4 pine wood plank. Paul improved on the distortion earlier electric guitars produced when amplified and this “log” was seen as the first solid-bodied electric guitar in history (or at least the most influential). Excited to show off his wood-heavy contraption to the world, he headed to Hollywood as his original trio broke up. Not long after being discharged from an Army stint from a 1942 WWII draft, he resumed his mission to have his innovations seen and most importantly heard. The staff musician job he picked up at NBC Radio in Los Angeles allowed him to meet his desired point of contact, entertainment world legend Bing Crosby. Crosby encouraged the innovator on his inventions and allowed him (with his new trio) to back him up on his songs creating #1 hits (1945’s It’s Been a Long, Long Time for example). A far cry from the days when he had to hide “The Log” in the case of a more familiar guitar to escape ridicule.

Crosby’s positive (and financial) reinforcement led to Paul building his own recording studio and yet another world-changing innovation. Crosby’s thirst for the advancement of recording technology inspired Paul to create multitrack recording on magnetic audiotape. Overdubbing multiple sound parts on one recording media and the special effects that result was something that grew from his earlier homemade experiments and professional recordings. He and future wife, singer Iris Colleen Summers (who he renamed Mary Ford thanks to a random phone book listing), exemplified the new recording innovations all over the radio’s Top 40 in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Riding high on these successes (with 1949’s The Les Paul Show on NBC radio) Paul was approached by Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1951 to share his “Log” design. A few years earlier Paul went to them with the idea but they turned him away calling it “nothing but a broomstick with a pickup on it.” But Fender Electric Instrument Company and their commercially-sold electric guitar had a lot to do with the change of heart. The Les Paul Standard was born (later to be known as the legendary Gibson Les Paul)…regardless of disputed quantity of design input from Paul himself. Fender’s rival Telecaster was the cheapo alternative to the high-end Les Paul model.

Paul with his Les Paulverizer, another one of his inventions that amplified and multiplied sound to simulate a full orchestra, delighted 1950s America as a star of vinyl, radio, and television. His inventiveness in the recording process enriched electronics company Ampex using his designs to become the standard in professional recording throughout the 1950s and 1960s. A 1948 car accident (which among many injuries shattered his right arm) could not deter the masterful music man and his ingenious gizmos. Refusing to give in to tragedy he told the docs to permanently set his injured arm in a near 90° angle just so he could continue to play the guitar.

What the Waukesha Wizard was not ready for was this new musical movement known as Rock ‘n’ Roll. Seemingly overnight, where Paul’s ethereal guitar plucking once had a strong presence on the music charts now seemed out of place in the midst of all the “race music” that brought forth Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. And these artists who came out of the evolution of blues and country used Paul’s technology to do it! The 1950s and the world would never be the same again.

And that’s how we got to the beginning of our story. But not the end. His eventual professional decline in the 1960s and associated health problems resulting from the old car accident pushed the pioneer into a partial retirement. He occasionally hit the recording studio for songs and albums in the later 1960s and 1970s and went back into refining and tinkering with musical inventions as age caught up with him. By the 1980s in a world of music videos and synthesizers, the septuagenarian fought off arthritis (and later paralyzed fingers) to play weekly gigs in intimate clubs. Coming full circle to his days as a redheaded teen playing in the clubs of Waukesha, a much revered and respected Les Paul plucked his dreamy style of electric guitar in this setting until the ripe age of 94.

Every genre from Hip-Hop to Heavy Metal to Punk to Funk to Crunk to Disco to Techno has arisen since the curious young boy from German stock began merging together gadgets and musical instruments in a southeastern Wisconsin town. Each and every one of those musical genres owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to the creative mastermind. Woodstock would have never happened if not for the efforts of Les Paul and the same goes for modern music. Close miking (as opposed to the harder old method of distant miking used in theater singing), multitrack recording, and his work in bringing forth the electric guitar changed the way artists performed and changed the types of music they could bring forth. And even his style of guitar playing had an influence on a diverse range of artists from Jeff Beck and Slash to The Edge and godson Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band. Think of him as the original Guitar Hero.

The world is certainly a better place thanks to the Les Paul Experience. Vaya con Dios, dear Wizard.

About the Author: John Lucas