Saturday, August 15, 2009

Les Paul

Les Paul, virtuoso guitarist and inventor, passed away Thursday at age 94. Between his legendary guitar design and the numerous studio advances he pioneered, Paul arguably had more influence on popular music than any other figure of the post-World War II era.

Lester William Polsfuss was born on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He started playing harmonica at age eight, and by his early teens had picked up the guitar and banjo as well. He also became a tinkerer at an early age. When he was 10, he made a harmonica rack from a coat hanger. Shortly after, he opened up the back of a Sears acoustic guitar, inserted the pickup from an old Victrola behind the strings, and turned the record player on to create his first amplified guitar.

By age 13 Paul was performing regularly around home as a country guitarist. He dropped out of high school and began landing gigs throughout the Midwest, including radio jobs with Wolverton's House Band on KMOX in St. Louis and on the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago, and also releasing a couple of country recordings under the name Rhubarb Red. By this time, though, Paul had discovered the work of jazz guitarist Django Rheinhart, and became bored with country music. He formed the jazz-oriented Les Paul Trio, moved to New York, and landed a featured slot on Fred Waring's radio program. During this period, Paul continued his experimenting. In 1941, looking for a way to electronically sustain musical notes, he attached strings and two pickups to a wooden board with a guitar neck. "The Log", as it became known, was one of the first solid-bodied electric guitars. When he was ribbed by his fellow musicians for playing such a ridiculous-looking instrument, he hid his Log inside the workings of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar.

Paul was drafted in 1942, which took him out to California to work with the Armed Forces Radio Service, where he worked with Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith. After his discharge, he formed a new trio, backing The Andrews Sisters, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby, who recorded the hit "It's Been A Long, Long Time" with the trio. Crosby also encouraged the guitarist's experimentation; he often visited Paul's makeshift garage studio, and eventually provided financial backing for Paul to build a full-fledged recording facility.

In California, Paul continued the sonic experimentation that built the foundation for the modern recording industry. He altered the speed of recordings to change their pitch and timbre. He experimented with microphone positioning and was one of the first to use reverberation. He found that by playing along with previous recordings, he could literally become a one-man band. In 1947, Paul recorded an instrumental version of "Lover" using eight separate guitar parts recorded on two acetate disc machines. Working with acetate discs required Paul to record each layer of music as a single take. He also built an acetate disc cutter from the flywheel of a Cadillac. Capitol released "Lover" as a single, and it became a major hit. Around this time he met a country singer named Colleen Summers; he changed her name to Mary Ford, a name he picked from the telephone book. But in 1948, tragedy would strike. Paul's car skidded off an icy bridge, severely injuring his right arm and shattering his elbow. His elbow would be immobile for life, so Paul had the doctors set it at an angle that would allow him to play guitar.

Paul and Ford married in 1949, and the duo commenced a string of hits that continued through the mid-50's, including "How High the Moon", "Bye Bye Blues", "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise", and "Vaya Con Dios". By this time, Paul had mastered the art of multitracking, combining Ford's vocals with his guitars and other effects to produce a sound years ahead of its time. Paul was now recording on magnetic tape. His friend Bing Crosby had invested in the Ampex Corporation, which developed the first commercial open-reel recorder. Crosby gave Paul the second Ampex Model 200 built, which Paul modified with a second playback head to create a crude form of multitracking using mono tape. This inspired Ampex to build two and three-track recorders, and in 1954 Paul commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track recorder. Ampex completed this project in 1957, which Paul lamented was too late for him to use on his hits, but by the mid-60's the machine was established as the backbone of modern recording.

In 1952, Paul came up with his most famous innovation. As early as 1945, Paul had approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with ideas for mass-producing "The Log", but was rejected. But in 1950, competitors Fender unveiled the Telecaster, which became the first popular solid-body electric guitar model. Gibson offered Paul an opportunity to become a consultant, which led to the creation of the legendary Les Paul electric guitar. Les Pauls quickly were noted for their excellent sustain - the reason Paul began experimenting with guitars in the first place. The other key innovation came in 1954 with the introduction of the humbucking pickup on Les Paul models, producing a clarity of tone then unattainable on other guitars.

The Les Paul was slow to catch on at first with guitarists, though. The solid-body design made it heavier than most competing models - a musician friend once remarked to me, "Those damn things feel like they weigh a ton!" A lot of pop guitarists preferred to stick with their hollow-bodied models, and many country and rockabilly artists preferred the twangier Telecaster. Carl Perkins was one of the few early rockers to play a Les Paul. In the 50's and early 60's, Les Pauls were favored most by jazz and blues guitarists who prized their sustain and its clean, thick tone. Bluesmen Freddie King and John Lee Hooker, among others, put their Les Pauls to good use during that era.

More than anything, the rise of British rock in the mid-60's caused the Les Paul's popularity to soar. Keith Richards was the first British rocker to use a Les Paul extensively, and his peers quickly recognized that the guitar provided the perfect sound for the blues-derived rock they were creating. Soon, Les Pauls were in the hands of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Peter Green, and just about every other notable British guitarist of the time. The Les Paul established the sound that would become the signature of the 60's-70's guitar rock era. By then, though, Les Paul himself had a falling-out with the Gibson company, which stopped producing electric guitars with his name in 1963. But the demand for Les Pauls was so great that Gibson resumed their production in 1968. The latter-day Les Pauls were considered inferior by many guitarists. Those who could afford to do so continued to seek out vintage Les Pauls; every once in a while you'd hear a story that Eric Clapton or some other famous guitarist would find a classic Les Paul in mint condition in a pawnshop in some podunk town. Today, late-50's Les Pauls in good condition bring many thousands of dollars.

During the 60's Les Paul began to recede from the spotlight. Paul and Ford would have no major hits after 1955; ironically, the guitar that he helped create became a chief factor in pushing the style of music he specialized in playing off the pop charts. The couple divorced in 1962. Paul recorded infrequently in his later years, although one of his most notable achievements came in 1976, collaborating with ace Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins to make Chester And Lester, winning a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. The two masters created an impressive blend of jazz and country styles, much of it recorded live in the studio without overdubbing. Paul had quintuple-bypass surgery in 1981. Until his last days, Paul appeared regularly in live performance. He began a Monday night residency at Manhattan jazz club Fat Tuesday's in 1983; when that venue closed in 1995, he moved to Iridium, where he continued to appear each Monday until weeks before his death, often joined by a host of celebrity musicians coming to pay their respects to the master. Although arthritis had robbed Paul of much of his speed, he remained a fluid, tasteful guitarist to the end.

Due to his inventiveness and innovative ability, Les Paul may well have been the most important popular music figure of the 20th Century. Although many artists sold more records, none could match Paul for his ingenuity. His ideas created the foundation that the entire modern music recording industry was built upon.

Readers with a further interest in Les Paul must read this 1975 Rolling Stone interview.

(Crossposted at Pole Hill Sanitarium.)