Les Paul, the inventor and guitar innovator, will be remembered as a towering figure whose influence and legacy touched all of music. Paul died Thursday (Aug. 13) in White Plains, N.Y., at age 94. Cause of death was complications due to pneumonia.
Until June of this year, Paul had continued to play every Monday night at a New York City club, Iridium. He began the tradition in 1983 at Fat Tuesday’s and moved only when that jazz club closed in 1995.
Both as a master guitarist and as a technological innovator, Paul’s influence reached across music genres, from rock to country, from jazz to pop. He built what is generally regarded as the first solid-body electric guitar and created such recording techniques as multi-track recording and tape delay.
Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915 in Waukesha, Wis. He learned harmonica, banjo and guitar and played in several country bands. As a child, he devised his own amplified guitar by placing a pickup from a record player into an acoustic guitar. He built a recording device using car parts and dental equipment.
In either 1940 or 1941 (the year has never been precisely pinned down), he built “The Log,” now generally regarded as the first solid body electric guitar. It was a wooden board with strings and two pickups.
He made the transition from country to jazz and moved to New York City with his trio. After military service in World War II, he began working in radio and was a musician for NBC in Los Angeles. He built a recording studio in his L.A. house and began toying with recording techniques, such as multi-tracking — so he could accompany himself on recordings.
He began using those techniques to good effect after he married Colleen Summers, then a singer with Gene Autry, changed her name to Mary Ford and began recording multi-track songs as Les Paul and Mary Ford. The multi-tracked vocals and guitar effects became increasingly complex, and they enjoyed many hits, such as “Mockingbird Hill” and “High How the Moon.” They later divorced in 1964.
In later years, the onset of arthritis forced him to teach himself new techniques of guitar playing. Years earlier, in 1948, a serious automobile accident almost destroyed his right elbow and the arm would never bend again. Paul had his doctors set the arm at an angle so he could still play guitar.
He built the first Les Paul model guitar for Gibson Musical Instruments in 1952, and the basic design of the Les Paul Standard model is the same today as it was in 1958. The company now makes detailed replicas of its Les Paul models from that era, and the original instruments are prized collector’s items. Although the guitars have often sold for much more, Gruhn Guitars, an internationally recognized dealer located in Nashville, is currently advertising a 1960 Les Paul Standard with a price tag of $250,000.
Paul later recorded delightful, intriguing music with Chet Atkins on the 1976 album, Chester & Lester, and 1978’s Chester & Lester, Guitar Monsters. Chester & Lester won them each a Grammy for best country instrumental performance. Both guitarists were heavily influenced by the gypsy jazz master Django Reinhardt. Atkins acknowledged Paul as an early influence on his guitar style, and the two men remained close friends until Atkins’ death in 2001.
In his role as head of RCA Nashville and as record producer, Atkins used Paul’s success with pop music and Paul’s musical styles as a blueprint for revamping country music into country pop in the 1960s, along with similar efforts by MCA’s Owen Bradley, Capitol’s Ken Nelson and Columbia’s Don Law.
Keith Urban, who has many Les Paul guitars in his collection, remembered Paul for all of his contributions.
“I have a mix of emotions today,” said Urban. “On one hand, I am deeply saddened at Les Paul’s passing, and on the other, a feeling of incredible gratitude and awe for his unquantifiable contribution to the world of music. His name adorns so many of the creations that I communicate through every night out here on the road. … He is also very present every time I set foot in the studio and am able to lay multiple tracks as I record, when I use echo. … The list of his inventions, in addition to his famous signature model Gibson, are extraordinary. I also feel that even in his 90s, the fact he was still playing every Monday night in New York is perhaps the most beautiful and inspiring achievement of all.”
Another Nashville guitar aficionado, Brad Paisley, said, “Let us celebrate the era of Les Paul today and the world of sound we get to experience thanks to him. What a legacy, what a life. ‘Somewhere there’s music … how high the moon.’ … Because of Les, everywhere there’s music.”
Paul’s final album, American Made, World Played was recorded in 2005 to mark his 90th birthday, with such guest stars as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck. It won two Grammys.