Les Paul: The Living Legend of the Electric Guitar
by Robert Denman
The date of June 9, 1915 was a special day in the lives of George and Evelyn Polfuss, as a baby boy was born to them. They named him Lester William. Little did they realize the impact this child would have on the world of twentieth century popular music. Lester was born to sturdy German stock and would learn the value of motivation and dedication to hard work from his mother. From early on, she was the driving force to propel him forward to excel at everything he did, especially his music.
As a young child, Lester taught himself the harmonica and progressed to the guitar after just a few years. The first influence on Lester was Pie Plant Pete, an entertainer from Chicago’s WLS radio station, who played a guitar and harmonica at the same time. Soon, Lester had managed to copy this man’s act. Evelyn gave Les the stage name of Red Hot Red, because of his red hair and his “red-hot” music. By 1929, Les was doing solo dates around his hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin.
In the spring of 1931, Lester met Sunny Joe Wolverton, who had a profound influence on the lad. Sunny Joe was a string player with Rube Tronson’s Cowboys. They became instant friends. After Sunny Joe left the Cowboys, Rube Tronson offered Lester a job in his band. At the age of 17, in 1932, Lester went on the road with Rube Tronson. In the meantime, Sunny Joe had landed a job with KMOX in St. Louis as a staff musician. Joe offered Les a job at the station and Les dropped out of high school and went to St. Louis in October 1932. Sunny Joe gave Les a stage name of Rhubarb Red, playing off the name of Pie Plant Pete, rhubarb being a synonym for pie plant.
Lester was a devoted student of the guitar under Sunny Joe’s tutelage, and soon Sunny Joe purchased for Lester his first Gibson guitar, an L-50 arch-top, as a gift. The Depression caused KMOX to make cutbacks and both young men were let go, and soon landed a job together at KWTO in Springfield, Missouri. At this time, Joe bought for Lester a Gibson L-5, as Lester was progressing so fast on the guitar. In 1934 they were hired by WBBM in Chicago, and were still playing hillbilly tunes and moving toward more big band songs in the pop field. The job at WBBM soon ended and the lads got a job playing at the Chicago World’s Fair in the summer of 1934. It was here that Lester and Sunny Joe had a falling out in August of 1934.
Les wanted to play jazz and experiment with the electric guitar, while Sunny Joe preferred to remain in country music and use his acoustic guitar. Lester Polfuss remained in Chicago performing on a variety of radio stations as Rhubarb Red. Shortly thereafter, he was hired by WJJD to perform as Rhubarb Red and at the same time working at a sister station, WIND, playing jazz under his new stage name of Les Paul. Listeners did not realize that Rhubarb Red and Les Paul were the same person. During this period in the mid 1930’s, Les was listening to the piano of Art Tatum and was much influenced by Tatum’s playing. Also, Les had acquired recordings of Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist from the Hot Club of France. Soon the style of Django became the style of Les, although he would never admit the influence Django had on him.
Django Reinhardt and Les Paul. Photo courtesy of Christopher Lentz.
Les began jamming at night with other jazz musicians around Chicago and enjoyed his experiences with Art Tatum, Roy Eldridge, Nat Cole, and Earl Hines. In 1936 and into 1937, Les recorded 20 sides on the Decca label with Georgia White, a popular blues singer. Les was 21 at this time.
One problem Les was having was to find a decent sounding amplified guitar in order to be heard better in the noisy clubs. None of the currently available electric guitars satisfied his sensitive ear. At this point Les began building pickups powerful enough for his use. He mounted them on second-hand guitars as he experimented with the placement and tonal qualities these pickups would offer. Les discovered that the vibration of the guitar’s top seemed to interfere with the sound of the vibrating strings when using his pickups. He was determined to find a way to stop the vibration of the top so the pure sound of the vibrating strings would be heard alone. The Larson Brothers of Chicago built him a guitar with a half-inch-thick maple top and no sound holes. This would stop the vibration of the top. Les was the first guitarist to place 2 pickups on his instrument. This guitar with the thick top was his pioneering idea later to be found in the solid body guitars to come.
Les’s custom-designed electric guitar generated favorable response, and he started playing with George Barnes, another convert to the early electric guitar. At this time, Les had built a primitive disk-cutting lathe and taught himself how to overdub on a single disk. It was this machine that would be the forerunner of the sound on sound recording technique that would make Les Paul famous.
In 1937, the Les Paul Trio was formed with Les, and guitarist Jimmy Atkins (older brother of Chet Atkins), and a bassist, Ernie Newton. Les was the lead guitarist, and Jimmy played rhythm guitar and sang.
Les, then 22, yearned to travel to New York City to play jazz in the big time. So, the trio left for New York to seek their fortune in the genre of jazz. After failing to get an audition with Paul Whiteman, Les managed to convince Fred Waring to listen to the trio. Mr. Waring liked these young fellows at once, and hired them to play with his orchestra, The Pennsylvanians. The Les Paul Trio was a featured act with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians on radio as well as live performances. Most listeners had never heard an electric guitar and were intrigued with Les’s sizzling single-note technique. In fact, Les began receiving more fan letters than Waring himself. Other young guitarists were influenced by Les’s work with Waring. Johnny Smith, Tony Mottola and Charlie Byrd were some of the great guitarists who were impacted by Les’s work with Waring.
After hours Les would jam with Art Tatum, Ben Webster, Stuff Smith, and Roy Eldridge. He even traded licks with Charlie Christian on the bandstand at Minton’s in Harlem. Many musicians jammed all night with Les in the basement of his apartment building. In 1939 the Trio cut some of their first records.
In 1941, the Epiphone Guitar Company permitted Les to use their factory on Sundays for his experiments refining his electric guitar. Here, Les built his Famous “Log”, a 20 pound guitar made from a 4” X 4” length of pine. He added a neck and two pickups he made. And to make it look like a guitar he installed a pair of side wings from an Epiphone acoustic. Les played the “log”, and his modified Gibson, along with his customized Epiphones in clubs.
In the spring of 1941, Les received a severe electric shock from his microphone stand in the basement of the apartment building. This injury prevented Les from playing for some time while he recuperated. Les and Waring were in conflict from Les’s recordings he made outside of the Waring Orchestra so Les disbanded the trio, resigned from the Pennsylvanians and accepted a job as music director for WJJD and WIND in Chicago. When Les began playing again he left the two stations for the WBBM studio orchestra. This led to a regular spot with the Ben Bernie Orchestra broadcasting on WBBM. His astounding guitar work attracted a young Bucky Pizzarelli to the radio broadcasts to marvel at Les’s technique.
During this time, Les brought the “Log” to M.H. Berlin, the president of Chicago Musical Instruments, which had acquired Gibson. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce Les’s idea for Gibson to manufacture a solid-body guitar. After declaring the “Log” to be nothing but a broomstick with pickups, Mr. Berlin laughed Les out the door.
In 1943, Ben Bernie retired to California due to poor health and promised to groom Les to take over his orchestra. Les, now 27, made the drive to Hollywood envisioning a leap upward in his career. He even had the desire to approach Bing Crosby to work with him. By this time Ben Bernie was too ill to be of any help to his young protégé. Mr. Bernie passed away in October 1943. Les wasted no time in forming a new trio and they soon got jobs with NBC in Hollywood as staff musicians. This was the home of Bing Crosby’s weekly Kraft Music Hall show.
Les’s plans were interrupted by the draft in 1943. Fortunately, Les had a friend in Meredith Willson, the music director of NBC. Major Willson was commissioned by the army to be the music director for the Armed Forces Radio Service, and he pulled strings to get Les into his unit. This experience proved to be one of the greatest breaks in Les’s career. He edited many hours of prerecorded entertainment into variety shows for Armed Forces network distribution. Les was now into the study of audio engineering. He formed a new trio and associated with many Hollywood stars featured on the network. The nice part is that Les could still live at home and work close to home. Within months, though, Les applied for a medical discharge and was out of uniform by early 1944. He still made transcriptions for the AFRS through C.P. MacGregor Recording Studio, and he recorded with many outstanding musicians, including alto sax man Willie Smith. Les learned audio work from the McGregor engineers in order to satisfy his thirst for knowledge in the field.
Les Paul Trio with Bing Crosby, 1945
In June of 1944, Les was invited by Nat Cole to join his trio in playing the show, Jazz At The Philharmonic, in Los Angeles. This concert along with other JATP concerts was released on records and sold well. Les returned to NBC after his army stint was over, and continued as before. He finally got the chance to play for Bing Crosby and was invited to be a frequent guest on his show with the new Les Paul Trio. A few months later the Les Paul Trio backed Crosby on the Decca label with the song, “It’s Been A Long, Long Time”. The song became a number one hit. Crosby, being impressed with Les’s technical recording skills, encouraged him to open his own studio. Les built a studio in his garage and even built his own recording lathe, using a solid steel Cadillac flywheel for a turntable - it was driven by dental belts. His studio also served as a guitar laboratory where he experimented with his guitar designs matching parts from various guitars. He came up with a modified Epiphone to which he bolted a steel plate to prevent the top from vibrating. With his own hand wound pickups mounted on the top he got the long-sustaining sound of a solid body guitar. Over the next five years, Les’s experiments in his garage studio would produce the new guitar sounds and audio recording techniques that would help to change popular music forever.
During this time the garage studio became a busy cottage industry as he recorded many stars from the period. Les was also busy with over a dozen sustaining shows on NBC as well as being a guest with George Burns and Gracie Allen, and continuing as a guest with Bing Crosby. He also did a number of recordings with his trio on the Decca label.
One year after Les’s hit with Bing Crosby, he teamed up with the Andrews Sisters to record a hit record, Rumors Are Flying. A few weeks later, Les landed his first Hollywood nightclub gig at the Club Rounders. With his group, he would play jazz standards mixed with some of his old Rhubarb Red hillbilly tunes. The Andrews Sisters then booked Les on their next road tour. The trio opened for them and accompanied their performances. During the tour, Les tried out his new headless aluminum guitar. However, it went in and out of tune due to the heat from the spotlights playing on it, and generated a lot of laughs.
Les now found himself at a crossroads of his career. He watched ecstatic audiences dancing in the aisles to the Andrews Sisters and their rendition of Rum and Coca-Cola, and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, while his jazz numbers were not getting across to the listeners. He decided to come up with a new approach to music. He resolved to make his music more accessible to his listeners. This signaled his shift away from jazz into middle-of-the-road pop music. Upon returning to the west coast he went into his garage studio and began his work.
After many hours of work alone he came up with his method of overdubbing to produce a clean effect with many parts being layered. He was way ahead of the contemporary audio engineers and had them baffled. After 500 discarded disks, Les finally produced a multi-layered arrangement of 8 guitars on the song, Lover, in 1947. Capital Records put it on the market and Les had a big hit. The New Sound of Les Paul was born.
Les decided to hire a female vocalist for his Rhubarb Red show, one of several sustaining programs he did for NBC. He auditioned Iris Colleen Summers, a lovely young country singer. This led to a partnership with Les giving her the stage name of Mary Ford. While traveling through Oklahoma in January 1948, the couple’s car skidded off the road and plummeted 20 feet into a frozen creek bed. Among Les’s many injuries, his right elbow was shattered. After a series of operations, his right arm was repaired, but it was many months before he was able to train his arm and hand to play again. During this time his new rendition of Lover was selling everywhere and receiving much airtime. One day Bing Crosby dropped by and presented Les with a get-well gift of a new Ampex tape recorder.
By 1949, Les was ready to play in public with Mary and had a debut with her at the Polfuss family tavern in Waukesha. Then a series of appearances around Milwaukee followed. Mary was in. They toured together in 1949 and in December they returned to Milwaukee and were married on December 29. Les began experimenting with his Ampex tape recorder and figured out how to overdub on tape by adding a second playback head. The modified Ampex now was a portable recording studio, which they used to record their many hits in hotel rooms while traveling between shows.
The couple soon began making radio shows together for NBC. The fifteen-minute radio program, Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home, was pre-recorded and broadcast every Friday night. Also, several more potential hits were being released by Capital Records. Les and Mary did all their recording at home or on the road and submitted the masters to Capital, with Les dictating to the record company what songs were destined to become hits.
After extensive touring and recording the couple decided to leave Hollywood and head for New York City to make the crossover from radio to television. They took a cramped apartment in Les’s former New York neighborhood. It was here that they conceived and recorded their arrangement of “How High The Moon”; a hard-swinging multi-layered arrangement containing twelve overdubs using the guitar and Mary’s voice. Capital was not ready for this one yet, but after Les had scored several more hits with Capital in 1950 and 1951, including, Tennessee Waltz, and Mockin’ Bird Hill, it was easier to persuade Capital to put out How High The Moon. Released in March of 1951, within one month, How High The Moon and Mockin’ Bird Hill captured The Hit Parade’s number 1 and number 2 spots, respectively. Les and Mary were in the big time.
The first solid body electric guitar was introduced to the market in 1948 by Leo Fender. Compared to the hollow-body electrics, the solid body guitars offered long sustain and a sharp treble, without the problem of feedback. Ted McCarty, the president of Gibson at the time, felt the need to address the competition from Fender, and instructed Gibson’s research and development department to design a solid body guitar. After a few months the team at Gibson built a promising prototype. It featured a mahogany body with a single cutaway sporting 2 P-90 pickups. A neck with a fingerboard of 22 frets extended the range of the instrument. The top was carved in such a way to appear like the arched tops on the Gibson acoustics. A gold finish applied to the top earned the guitar the nickname of “the Gold Top”. The next strategy would be for McCarty to figure out how to market the new design. He thought immediately of Les Paul as an endorser of the instrument. After all, Les was one of the country’s most highly acclaimed players and was well known for his own work on improving the electric guitar. In the fall of 1951, McCarty presented the prototype to Les for his advice and counsel. The new guitar pleased Les very much, and a five-year contract was drawn up that night for Les to endorse the guitar for a royalty on each one sold. Les also was required to play only Gibsons in public. In regards to the design of the new solid body, Les had one suggestion. It was to use a trapeze tailpiece with a cylindrical bar that he had recently developed. Other than this modification, the guitar was entirely a creation of Gibson’s research and development department. Les convinced McCarty to give the guitar the name of “The Les Paul Model”. Les unveiled his new Gold Top for the first time at the New York Paramount in June 1952. Les used the Gold Top to record Tiger Rag, which became another big hit.
Les and Mary had earned $500,000 by the end of 1951, and had recorded more top ten hits for the year than Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and the Andrews Sisters combined. They also tied Patti Page for top selling recording artist, having sold more than six million disks since January of 1951. Les bought a big Cadillac to use on their expanding road tours with plenty of space for all their electronic gear. Next came the woodland retreat in Mahwah, NJ, in the Ramopo Mountains. Renovations began to turn the house into a mansion including Les’s recording studio and an echo chamber carved out of a neighboring mountain. In September 1952, after cutting I’m Sitting on Top of the World, Les and Mary sailed for London to appear at the Palladium Theatre, where they debuted before the Queen and the royal family.
In 1953 the couple recorded the song that would be the largest seller of their career. In June 1953, Vaya con Dios hit the record bins, and sailed to the number one spot. Following this success the couple started to host their own daily television broadcast from their Mahwah home. The show, sponsored by Listerine, ran for 3 years as The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show. Les and Mary enjoyed their success by working even harder. They managed to put out 28 hits between 1950 and 1957. In early 1955, rock and roll came along and eventually threatened the popularity of many performers including Les Paul and Mary Ford. Rock and roll left Les stranded and he was baffled by the rising appeal of rock and roll performers. In fact the electric guitar, which propelled Les into popularity, had become the instrument of his professional doom in the hands of the rock and roll entertainers. Les and Mary were showing the serious signs of strain from the years of living a show business life style.
Les then turned to his other interest: electronics. In 1954, he toyed with the idea of stacking eight recording units to produce multi-generational music. He went to Ampex with his ideas and in 1957 Ampex brought out “the Octupus” as Les called it. This eight-track machine revolutionized the recording industry.
In 1956, Les devised a remote control little black box attached to his guitar that would enable him to operate the taped accompaniment he used during live performances. An invitation to play at the Eisenhower White House was the first chance for Les to test his new device called the “Les Paulverizer”.
Les and Mary left Capital and signed with the Columbia label in July 1958. But, the move failed to restore their declining career. Their marriage was also failing and their many professional and personal setbacks resulted in a divorce in December 1964. Les now lay low in New Jersey, playing some and working on his electronic experiments. He liked to jam at home all night with his old friends. Les had ended his association with Gibson around 1961, due to the waning popularity of his guitars. In 1967, Les persuaded Gibson to utilize his new low-impedance pickups leading to several new Les Paul Models to emerge with these new pickups. However, the new pickups never caught on and by the mid 1970’s Gibson dropped the concept.
Les’s old friend, Bucky Pizzarelli, called Les in 1972 and wanted Les to join him as a duet for a gig. Les was well received once again and this began a return to the mainstream through a number of new opportunities. Les was doing personal appearances again and was featured in a few videos. In May 1975, Les and Chet Atkins recorded an album, Chester and Lester. The album became a popular and critical success and earned the two guitarists a Grammy award in 1977. Later in 1977, Les was badly shaken by Mary Ford’s death and the passing of his personal manager, as well as Jimmy Atkins and Ernie Newton (from the original Les Paul Trio). Shortly after this, Bing Crosby also died.
In 1980, Les underwent quintuple coronary artery bypass surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. His recovery was a very slow and difficult process. Eventually, Les was up and playing again despite severe arthritis in both hands. His friend and fellow guitarist, Wayne Wright, landed a gig at Fat Tuesday’s, a jazz club in New York City. Together with Gary Mazzaroppi on bass the trio debuted at Fat Tuesday’s in March 1984, and enjoyed a long-standing engagement each Monday night for several years. Les was being called the “Living Legend” and his life and music suddenly appealed to the young rockers looking for a hero. His guitars had been in the hands of major rock stars for some time and these younger recording artists had also adopted his recording studio innovations. Many younger guitarists were astounded to find that Les Paul was a real person, and not just a guitar. The “Living Legend” had returned to center stage. The very culture that put Les out of business was now chasing after him, even though Les never played rock and roll in his life. In January 1988, Les was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not because he was a rocker, but for the instrument he had helped to create along with his invention of multiple-track recording. In February 2001, Les received a Technology Grammy for 6 decades of contributions to the recording industry including the Les Paul Guitar, multiple-track recording, overdubbing techniques, tape echo, and his eight-track tape recorder.
Les Paul performing, 2001. Photo courtesy of Christopher Lentz.
Since 1996, Les and his trio have played at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City each Monday night, and at the age of 86, despite frail health, Les is determined to continue. Les Paul is indeed the “Living Legend of the Electric Guitar”.
©Copyright 2000, Robert Denman
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Article title photo courtesy of Robert Denman. Les Paul with his namesake Les Paul guitar. Photo autographed by Les Paul for Robert Denman.
Robert G. Denman, a guitarist for 47 years, is a performer and teacher of jazz guitar, and makes his home in Valley City, OH USA.
Robert has a web site at guitarman1915
Robert can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org