Les Paul

This article is about the musician. For the guitar named after him, see Gibson Les Paul.
Not to be confused with Wes Paul.
Les Paul

Les Paul playing a Gibson Les Paul in a live show at Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, 2008.
Background information
Birth name Lester William Polsfuss
Born (1915-06-09)June 9, 1915
Waukesha, Wisconsin, US
Died August 13, 2009(2009-08-13) (aged 94)
White Plains, New York, US
Genres Jazz, country, blues
Occupation(s) Inventor, musician, songwriter
Instruments Guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano
Years active 1928–2009
Website lespaulfoundation.org
Notable instruments
Gibson Les Paul

Lester William Polsfuss (June 9, 1915 – August 13, 2009), known as Les Paul, was an American jazz, country, and blues guitarist, songwriter, luthier, and inventor. He was one of the pioneers of the solid-body electric guitar, which made the sound of rock and roll possible. Paul taught himself how to play guitar and while he is mainly known for jazz and popular music, he had an early career in country music.[1] He is credited with many recording innovations. Although he was not the first to use the technique, his early experiments with overdubbing (also known as sound on sound),[2] delay effects such as tape delay, phasing effects and multitrack recording were among the first to attract widespread attention.[3]

His innovative talents extended into his playing style, including licks, trills, chording sequences, fretting techniques and timing, which set him apart from his contemporaries and inspired many guitarists of the present day.[4][5][6][7] He recorded with his wife Mary Ford in the 1950s, and they sold millions of records.

Among his many honors, Paul is one of a handful of artists with a permanent, stand-alone exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[8] He is prominently named by the music museum on its website as an "architect" and a "key inductee" along with Sam Phillips and Alan Freed.[9] Les Paul is the only person to be included in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[10]

Early life

Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss[11] in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to George[10] and Evelyn (Stutz) Polsfuss. His family was of German ancestry.[12] Paul's mother was related to the founders of Milwaukee's Valentin Blatz Brewing Company and the makers of the Stutz automobile.[13] His parents divorced when he was a child.[14] His mother simplified their Prussian family name first to Polfuss, then to Polfus, although Les Paul never legally changed his name. Before taking the stage name Les Paul, he also performed as Red Hot Red[15] and Rhubarb Red.[16]

At the age of eight, Paul began playing the harmonica. After trying to learn the piano, he switched to the guitar. It was during this time that he invented a neck-worn harmonica holder, which allowed him to play both sides of the harmonica hands-free while accompanying himself on the guitar. It is still manufactured using his basic design.[17] By age thirteen, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. While playing at the Waukesha area drive-ins and roadhouses, Paul began his first experiment with sound. Wanting to make himself heard by more people at the local venues, he wired a phonograph needle to his guitar and connected it to a radio speaker, using that to amplify his acoustic guitar.[18] As a teen Paul created his first solid body electric guitar using a 2-foot piece of rail from a nearby train line.[19] At age seventeen, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys, and soon after he dropped out of high school to team up with Sunny Joe Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri, on KMOX.


Early career

Paul moved to Chicago in 1934, where he continued to perform on radio stations WBBM and WLS. He met pianist Art Tatum, whose playing influenced him to stick with the guitar rather than original plans of taking on the piano.[20] His first two records were released in 1936, credited to "Rhubarb Red", Paul's hillbilly alter ego, He also served as an accompanist for a few other bands signed to Decca. During this time he began ever adding different sounds and adopted his stage name of Les Paul.[21]

Paul's guitar style was strongly influenced by the music of Django Reinhardt, whom he greatly admired.[22] Following World War II, Paul sought out and made friends with Reinhardt. After Reinhardt died in 1953, Paul partly paid for the cost of the funeral.[23] One of Paul's prize possessions was a Selmer Maccaferri acoustic guitar given to him by Reinhardt's widow.[15]

Paul formed a trio in 1937 with singer/rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins[24] (older half-brother of guitarist Chet Atkins) and bassist/percussionist Ernie "Darius" Newton. They left Chicago for New York in 1938,[25] landing a featured spot with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians radio show. Chet Atkins later wrote that his brother, home on a family visit, presented him with an expensive Gibson archtop guitar that Les Paul had given to Jim. Chet recalled that it was the first professional-quality instrument he ever owned.[26]

Paul was dissatisfied with acoustic-electric guitars and began experimenting at his apartment in Queens, New York with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created several versions of "The Log", which was a length of common 4x4 lumber with a bridge, guitar neck, strings and pickup attached. For the sake of appearance, he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar, sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body. These instruments were constantly being improved and modified over the years, and Paul continued to use them in his recordings long after the development of his eponymous Gibson model. In 1945, Richard D. Bourgerie made an electric guitar pickup and amplifier for professional guitar player George Barnes. Bourgerie worked through World War II at Howard Radio Company making electronic equipment for the American military. Barnes showed the result to Les Paul, who then arranged for Bourgerie to have one made for him.

While experimenting in his apartment in 1941,[25] Paul nearly succumbed to electrocution. During two years of recuperation, he relocated to Hollywood, supporting himself by producing radio music and forming a new trio. During this time, he was remembered by factory workers as a frequent visitor to the Electro String Instrument Corp. shop on Western Ave. in Los Angeles, where he observed production of Rickenbacker brand guitars and amplifiers.

He was drafted into the US Army in 1943,[25] where he served in the Armed Forces Radio Network, backing such artists as Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, and performing in his own right.[27]

Les Paul, ca. January 1947 (Photograph by William P. Gottlieb)

As a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 1944. The recording, still available as Jazz at the Philharmonic- the first concert- shows Paul at the top of his game, both in his solid four to the bar comping in the style of Freddie Green and for the originality of his solo lines. Paul's solo on 'Blues' is an astonishing tour de force and represents a memorable contest between himself and Nat 'King' Cole. Much later in his career, Paul declared that he had been the victor and that this had been conceded by Cole. His solo on Body and Soul is a fine demonstration both of his admiration for and emulation of the playing of Django Reinhardt, as well as his development of some very original lines.

Also that year, Paul's trio appeared on Bing Crosby's radio show. Crosby went on to sponsor Paul's recording experiments. The two recorded together several times, including a 1945 #1 hit, "It's Been a Long, Long Time". Paul's trio recorded a few albums of their own on the Decca label in the late 1940s. Paul was particularly enamored by the famous Andrews Sisters, who hired The Les Paul Trio as their opening act while they toured in 1946. Lou Levy, the sisters' manager and a music publishing giant of the big band era and beyond, once said, "Watching his fingers work was like watching a locomotive go."[28] The trio's longtime conductor, Vic Schoen, said of Les, "You could always count on him to come up with something no one else had thought of,"[28] while Maxene Andrews once remembered, "It was wonderful having him perform with us. He'd tune into the passages we were singing and lightly play the melody, sometimes in harmony. We'd sing these fancy licks and he'd keep up with us note for note in exactly the same rhythm...almost contributing a fourth voice. But he never once took the attention away from what we were doing. He did everything he could to make us sound better."[28] Two Decca recordings from 1946 pairing Paul with The Andrews Sisters ("Rumors Are Flying" and "It's a Pity to Say Goodnight") exist today to affirm such comments. Paul's many hits with his wife Mary Ford recording her vocals in triplicate in the 1950s produced a sound eerily similar to the harmonious blend of The Andrews Sisters.[28] As Les Paul biographer Mary Alice Shaughnessy noted of Paul's association with The Andrews Sisters, "Les welcomed the opportunity to study them in full flight."[28]

In January 1948, Paul shattered his right arm and elbow in a near-fatal automobile accident on an icy Route 66 just west of Davenport, Oklahoma. Mary Ford was driving the Buick convertible, which plunged off the side of a railroad overpass and dropped 20 feet into a ravine;[25] they were on their way back from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after visiting family.[25] Doctors at Oklahoma City's Wesley Presbyterian Hospital told Paul that they could not rebuild his elbow. Their other option was amputation. Paul was flown to Los Angeles, where his arm was set at an angle—just under 90 degrees—that allowed him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him nearly a year and a half to recover.[29]

Guitar builder

The Gibson Les Paul, one of the world's most popular electric guitars, was inspired by Paul's "Log".

Paul's innovative guitar, "The Log", built after-hours in the Epiphone guitar factory in 1940, a 4" × 4" chunk of pine with strings and a pickup, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars.[30][31] Paul Tutmarc of Audiovox Manufacturing Co. built a solid body electric bass in 1935 and Adolph Rickenbacker had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 1930s. In 1941 he created a prototype instrument, known as the Log, which he fashioned from a four-foot wooden board. Paul A. Bigsby had built one for Merle Travis in 1948 and Leo Fender also independently created his own (the Fender "Esquire," a single pickup model) in 1948. Although Paul approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with his idea of a solid body electric guitar in 1941,[25] it showed no interest until Fender began marketing its Esquire; this later had a second pickup added and became known as the Broadcaster. (The Broadcaster was renamed the Telecaster in 1952.)

The arrangement persisted until 1961, when declining sales prompted Gibson to change the design without Paul's knowledge, creating a much thinner, lighter and more aggressive-looking instrument with two cutaway "horns" instead of one. Paul said he first saw the "new" Gibson Les Paul in a music-store window, and disliked it. Problems with the strength of the body and neck made Paul dissatisfied with the new guitar. This, and a pending divorce from Mary Ford, led to Paul ending his endorsement and use of his name on Gibson guitars until 1966, by which time his divorce was completed.[32] At Paul's request, Gibson renamed the guitar "Gibson SG," which stands for "Solid Guitar," and it also became one of the company's best sellers.

The original Gibson Les Paul design regained popularity when Eric Clapton began playing the instrument a few years later, although he also played an SG and an ES-335. Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson and endorsed the original Gibson Les Paul guitar from that point onwards. His personal Gibson Les Pauls were much modified by him: Paul always used his own self-wound pickups and customized methods of switching between pickups on his guitars. To this day, various models of Gibson Les Paul guitars are used all over the world by both novice and professional guitarists. A less-expensive version of the Les Paul guitar is manufactured for Gibson's Epiphone brand.[33]

Paul continued to seek technical improvements, although they were not always successful commercially. For example, in 1962 Paul was issued US Patent No. 3,018,680, for a pickup in which the coil was physically attached to the strings.[34] One of Paul's innovations became somewhat successful; unfortunately, it was not to his benefit. In the mid-1940s, he introduced an aluminum guitar with the tuning mechanisms below the bridge. As it had no headstock, only string attachments at the nut, it was the first "headless" guitar. Unfortunately, Paul's guitar was so sensitive to the heat from stage lights that it would not keep tune. This style was further developed by others, most successfully Ned Steinberger.[35]

Multitrack-recording innovations

In the 1940s Paul was not happy with the way his records sounded. He felt that his sound was not different from anyone else's. This reality struck him when his mother complimented him on a song she had heard on the radio, when in fact she had heard George Barnes, not Paul.[36] Paul experimented with his playing techniques through the 1930s and 1940s, and played in private for many years before demonstrating his ideas. He eventually put his own sound into a Bing Crosby song, "It's Been a Long, Long Time," which was a number one single in 1945.[37] During a post-recording session talk with Crosby, the crooner suggested that Paul try building his own recording studio so he could produce the sound he wanted. Paul started his own studio in the garage of his home on Hollywood's North Curson Street. The studio drew many famous vocalists and musicians who wanted the benefit of Paul's expertise. In his studio, Paul experimented with different techniques, including microphone placement, the speed of the track, and overdubbed recordings that had clarity that had not been seen before in this type of multitrack recording. People also started to consider Les Paul’s mixed recording technique and tools to be actual instruments that were just as important to the production of music as other, more common instruments.[38] The home and studio were moved to Pasadena at some point after Paul no longer owned the home.[39]

In 1949,[25] Les Paul was given one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel audio tape recording decks by Crosby.[25] Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul's garage, entitled "Lover (When You're Near Me)", which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence "double-fast" when played back at normal speed for the master. ("Brazil", similarly recorded, was the B-side.) This was the first time that Paul used multitracking in a recording, though he had been shopping his multitracking technique, unsuccessfully, since the 1930s. Paul's early multitrack recordings were made with acetate discs. Paul would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. He built the multitrack recording with overlaid tracks, rather than parallel ones as he did later. By the time he had a result he was satisfied with, he had discarded some five hundred recording disks.

Paul even built his own disc-cutter assembly, based on automobile parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the acetate-disk setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he later used magnetic tape, he could take his recording rig on tour with him, even making episodes for his fifteen-minute radio show in his hotel room. He later worked with Ross Snyder on the design of the first eight-track recording deck (built for him by Ampex for his home studio.)[39][40]

Electronics engineer Jack Mullin had been assigned to a U.S. Army Signal Corps unit stationed in France during World War II. On a mission in Germany near the end of the war, he acquired and later shipped home a German Magnetophon (tape recorder) and fifty reels of I.G. Farben plastic recording tape. Back in the U.S., Mullin rebuilt and developed the machine with the intention of selling it to the film industry. He held a series of demonstrations which quickly became the talk of the American audio industry.

Within a short time, Crosby had hired Mullin to record and produce his radio shows and master his studio recordings on tape. Crosby invested US$50,000 in a Northern California electronics firm, Ampex. With Crosby's backing, Mullin and Ampex created the Ampex Model 200, the world's first commercially produced reel-to-reel audio tape recorder. Crosby gave Les Paul the second Model 200 to be produced.[25]

Les Paul invented Sound on Sound recording using this machine by placing an additional playback head, located before the conventional erase/record/playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track. This was a mono tape recorder with just one track across the entire width of quarter-inch tape; thus, the recording was "destructive" in the sense that the original recording was permanently replaced with the new, mixed recording. He eventually enhanced this by using one tape machine to play back the original recording and a second to record the combined track. This preserved the original recording.[41]

In 1952, Les invented the flange effect, where a sound phases in and out in harmonic tone. The first example of this can be heard on his song, Mammy's Boogie.[42][43]

Les Paul bought the first Ampex 8-track recorder in 1957.[41] Rein Narma built a custom 8-channel mixing console for Les Paul.[44] The mixing board included in-line equalization and vibrato effects. He named the recorder "The Octopus" and the mixing console "The Monster".[45] The name "octopus" was inspired by comedian W. C. Fields who was the first person Les Paul played his multi-tracked guitar experiments to. "He came to my garage to make a little record (in 1946)," Les recalled. "I played him the acetate of 'Lover' that I'd done. When he heard it, he said, 'My boy, you sound like an octopus.'"[46]

Les Paul and Mary Ford

Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1954

In the summer of 1945, Paul met country-western singer Iris Colleen Summers. They began working together in 1948, during which time she adopted the stage name Mary Ford and married in 1949. Their hits included "How High the Moon", "Bye Bye Blues", "Song in Blue", "Don'cha Hear Them Bells", "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise", and "Vaya con Dios". The songs featured Ford harmonizing with herself, as well as Les Paul's multiple guitars. After 1954, rock-and-roll drove most artists of Paul's generation from the charts and the duo's hits dried up.

Like Crosby, Paul and Ford used the now-ubiquitous recording technique known as close miking,[39] where the microphone is less than 6 inches (15 cm) from the singer's mouth. This produces a more-intimate, less-reverberant sound than is heard when a singer is 1 foot (30 cm) or more from the microphone. When implemented using a pressure-gradient (uni- or bi-directional) microphone, it emphasizes low-frequency sounds in the voice due to the microphone's proximity effect and gives a more relaxed feel because the performer is not working as hard. The result is a singing style which diverged strongly from the unamplified theater-style singing that is heard in the musical comedies of the 1930s-40s.

Radio and television programs

Paul had hosted a 15-minute radio program, The Les Paul Show, on NBC Radio in 1950, featuring his trio (himself, Ford and rhythm player Eddie Stapleton) and his electronics, recorded from their home and with gentle humor between Paul and Ford bridging musical selections, some of which had already been successful on records, some of which anticipated the couple's recordings, and many of which presented re-interpretations of such jazz and pop selections as "In the Mood", "Little Rock Getaway", "Brazil", and "Tiger Rag". Over ten of these shows survive among old-time radio collectors today.[47]

The show also appeared on television a few years later with the same format, but excluding the trio and retitled The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show (also known as Les Paul & Mary Ford at Home) with "Vaya Con Dios" as the theme song. Sponsored by Warner Lambert's Listerine mouthwash, it was aired on NBC television during 1954–1955, and then syndicated until 1960. The show aired five times a day, five days a week for only five minutes (one or two songs) long, and therefore was used as a brief interlude or fill-in in programming schedules. Since Paul created the entire show himself, including audio and video, he maintained the original recordings and was in the process of restoring them to current quality standards until his death.[48]

During his radio shows, Paul introduced the fictional "Les Paulverizer" device, which multiplies anything fed into it, such as a guitar sound or a voice. It was Paul's way of explaining how his single guitar could be multiplied to become a group of guitars. The device even became the subject of comedy, with Ford multiplying herself and her vacuum cleaner with it so she could finish the housework faster. Later, Paul created a real Les Paulverizer that he attached to his guitar. The invention allowed Paul to access pre-recorded layers of songs during live performances so he could replicate his recorded sound on stage.[49]

Later career

Les Paul, May 2004

In 1965, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally. He and Ford had divorced at the end of 1964 after she got tired of touring.[50] Paul's most recognizable recordings from then through the mid-1970s were an album for London Records/Phase 4 Stereo, Les Paul Now (1968), on which he updated some of his earlier hits; and, backed by some of Nashville's celebrated studio musicians, a meld of jazz and country improvisation with fellow guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester (1976), for RCA Victor.

In part because of the lingering effects of his 1948 car accident, Paul began suffering from arthritis in the mid-1960s. As he got older, the condition worsened and in his final years, he virtually lost the use of his right hand except the ring and pinky fingers. He also suffered from progressive hearing loss starting in 1969 after a prank a friend played on him blew out his eardrums and caused an inner ear infection that required surgery. In addition, Paul had difficulty tuning guitars properly due to his ears "misinterpreting" pitch. Frustrated with the quality of most hearing aids, he set to work designing his own custom unit (and was still at the job when he died). He once joked that "Audio engineers and musicians are the two kinds of people that hearing aid manufacturers fear the most."

Undaunted, he continued to perform through his disabilities while making some compromises such as playing at slower tempos and using an extra-large guitar pick that he could grip more easily. In 2006, at age 90, he won two Grammys at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He also performed every Monday night, accompanied by a trio which included guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Paul Nowinski (and later, Nicki Parrott) and guitarist Frank Vignola and for a few years, pianist John Colaianni. Originally Paul, Pallo and Nowinski performed at Fat Tuesdays, and later at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway in the Times Square area of New York City.[51][52][53]

Les and his trio held court at the Iridium Jazz Club for many years, playing two sets every Monday night. During the last years of his life, Paul's setlists consisted mostly of 1930s-40s jazz standards and he largely ignored his hits from the '50s. Often, a wide array of other artists would appear and sit in with or sing in front of the trio and he enjoyed regaling fans, many of whom were not alive for his '50s hits, with stories of playing with celebrities in his youth. A tribute trio still plays the Monday dates.

Composer Richard Stein (1909–1992) sued Paul for plagiarism, charging that Paul's "Johnny (Is the Boy for Me)" was taken from Stein's 1937 song "Sanie cu zurgălăi" (Romanian for "Sleigh with Bells"). A 2000 cover version of "Johnny" by Belgian musical group Vaya Con Dios that credited Paul prompted another action by the Romanian Musical Performing and Mechanical Rights Society.[54][55]

For many years, Les Paul would sometimes surprise radio hosts Steve King and Johnnie Putman with a call to the "Life After Dark Show" on WGN (AM) in Chicago. These calls would take place in the wee hours of Tuesday morning following his long-running Monday evening show at the Iridium Jazz Club. Until they ended their show on WGN, Steve and Johnnie continued to honor Les on Tuesday Mornings at 2:35 AM with their segment "A Little More Les" drawing from around 30 hours of recorded conversations with Les.

Awards and honors

Paul was initiated into the Gamma Delta chapter of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at the University of Miami in 1952.[56] He has earned the Presidential award from the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.[57]

Les Paul and fellow National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Technical Grammy Award winner Roger Nichols

In 1960, Paul and wife Mary Ford received a star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame.[58]

Les Paul has been acknowledged by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (aka The Recording Academy and NARAS) with various Grammy Awards. In 1976, Paul and Chet Atkins received a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental.[58] In 1979, Paul and Ford's 1951 recording of "How High the Moon" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.[59] Paul received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1983, and in 2001 Paul was honored with the Special Merit/Technical Grammy Award, which recognizes "individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of audio technology," a select award given to masters of audio innovation including Thomas Alva Edison, Leo Fender, and Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick.[60] In 2005, Paul received two Grammy awards; one for Best Pop Instrumental for his recording of "Caravan" and one for Best Rock Instrumental for "69 Freedom Special." That same year Paul was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

In 1985, Paul was inducted into the Hollywood Rock Wall.[58]

In 1988, Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck, who said, "I've copied more licks from Les Paul than I'd like to admit." That same year, the Mix Foundation, now known as the TEC Foundation, inducted Paul into the TEC Hall of Fame. In 1991, the foundation established its annual Les Paul Award which honors "individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of audio technology".[61] The award, now known as the Les Paul TEC Award, is presented annually at the NAMM Show

In 1990, Paul was inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame and the Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1996, the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame inducted Paul. That same year Paul received the James Smithsonia Bicentennial Medal. In 2004, Paul received an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in Engineering.The Wisconsin Foundation for School Music bestowed its Lifetime Achievement in Music Education on Paul that same year.[58]

In 2005, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his development of the solid-body electric guitar.[62] He was named an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society in 1958.[63] In 2007, he received the National Medal of Arts from U.S. President George W. Bush.[64]

A one-hour biographical documentary film The Wizard of Waukesha was shown at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FILMEX) March 4–21, 1980, and later on PBS television. A biographical, feature-length documentary titled Les Paul Chasing Sound made its world première on May 9, 2007, at the Downer Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Paul appeared at the event and spoke briefly to the enthusiastic crowd. The film is distributed by Koch Entertainment and was broadcast on PBS on July 11, 2007, as part of its American Masters series[65][66] and was broadcast on October 17, 2008, on BBC Four as part of its Guitar Night. The première coincided with the final part of a three-part documentary by the BBC broadcast on BBC One The Story of the Guitar.

In June 2008, an exhibit showcasing his legacy and featuring items from his personal collection opened at Discovery World in Milwaukee.[67] The exhibit was facilitated by a group of local musicians under the name Partnership for the Arts and Creative Excellence (PACE).[68] Paul played a concert in Milwaukee to coincide with the opening of the exhibit.[69]

Paul's hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, opened a permanent exhibit titled "The Les Paul Experience" at the Waukesha County Museum in June 2013. The exhibit features artifacts on loan from the Les Paul Foundation. A self-guided tour of Les Paul's Waukesha was created by the Les Paul Foundation.[70][71]

In July 2005, a 90th-birthday tribute concert was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. After performances by Steve Miller, Peter Frampton, Jose Feliciano and a number of other contemporary guitarists and vocalists, Paul was presented with a commemorative guitar from the Gibson Guitar Corporation.[72]

On November 15, 2008, he received the American Music Masters award through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a tribute concert at the State Theater in Cleveland, Ohio. Among the many guest performers were Duane Eddy, Eric Carmen, Lonnie Mack, Jennifer Batten, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Dennis Coffey, James Burton, Billy Gibbons, Lenny Kaye, Steve Lukather, Barbara Lynn, Katy Moffatt, Alannah Myles, Richie Sambora, The Ventures and Slash.

In February 2009, only months prior to his death, Les Paul sat down with Scott Vollweiler of Broken Records Magazine, in what would be one of Les Paul's final interviews. His candid answers were direct and emotional. Broken Records Magazine had planned to run that cover feature the following month but due to delays was held until the summer. Three days before the release, Les Paul died. The issue would be his final cover feature of his storied career.[73]

In April 2009, Gerbren Deves did an extensive interview with him, which was published in the English Guitar Magazine just after his death.

In August 2009, Paul was named One of the Top Ten Best Electric Guitar Players of All Time by Time magazine.[74] That same year, William Paterson University's Brave New Radio Station bestowed its Bravery in Radio Award on Paul.

On June 9, 2010, which would have been Les Paul's 95th birthday, a tribute concert featuring Jeff Beck, Imelda May, Gary U.S. Bonds and Brian Setzer among others, was held at the Iridium Jazz Club where Les Paul played every Monday almost to the end of his life. The concert was released on the live album Rock 'n' Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul) in 2011.

In 2010, Paul was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.[75]

Also in 2010, Paul received an Honorary New York Emmy, was inducted into the Music Producers Guild for Innovation in Production and received the Joe Meek Award for Innovation in Production from the Music Producers Guild of the United Kingdom.

On June 9–10, 2011 Google celebrated what would have been Paul's 96th birthday with a Google doodle of an interactive guitar.[76]

On November 23, 2011, Paul was ranked at #18 on Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".[77] That same year, Paul was added to the Nashville Walk of Fame.[58]

Centennial birth celebrations

On June 9, 2015, a yearlong celebration of Paul's 100th birthday kicked off in Times Square with performances by musicians including Joe Bonamassa, Neal Schon, and Steve Miller, a memorabilia exhibition, and a proclamation from the Les Paul Foundation declaring June 9 as Les Paul Day.[78] There will also be a 53 feet (16 m)-foot-long interactive mobile exhibition called Les Paul's Big Sound Experience that will offer visitors to a chance to explore music, sound and technology innovations in a hands-on, entertaining interactive experience. This mobile exhibit will tour the United States stopping at state fairs, music festivals, and local attractions through late May 2016.[79]

Personal life

Les Paul with pianist John Colianni.

Paul married Virginia Webb in 1938. They had two children, Lester Jr. (Rusty), born in 1941 (died in 2015), and Gene, who was named after actor-songwriter Gene Lockhart, born in 1944, before divorcing in 1949. Later that year, Paul and Mary Ford (born Iris Colleen Summers) were married. They adopted a girl, Colleen, in 1958 and their son Robert (Bobby) was born the following year. They had also lost a child, who was born prematurely and died only four days old. Les Paul and Mary Ford were divorced in December 1964.[50]

Paul was the instructor of rock guitarist Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, to whom Paul gave his first guitar lesson.[80] Miller's parents were best man and matron of honor at Paul's 1949 wedding to Mary Ford.

Paul resided for many years in Mahwah, New Jersey.[81]

In 1995 Paul established the Les Paul Foundation, which was designed to remain dormant until his death. The mission of the Foundation is to honor and share the life, spirit and legacy of Les Paul by supporting music education, engineering and innovation as well as medical research.


On August 12, 2009, Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York.[82][83] His family and friends were by his side.[84] Paul is survived by his four children and his companion Arlene Palmer.[85] His manager told the media that Paul had several hospital stays over the previous few months.[86] Paul's last concert took place a few weeks before his death.

Upon learning of his death many artists and popular musicians paid tribute by publicly expressing their sorrow. After learning of Paul's death, former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash called him "vibrant and full of positive energy.", while Richie Sambora, lead guitarist of Bon Jovi, referred to him as "revolutionary in the music business". U2 guitarist The Edge said, "His legacy as a musician and inventor will live on and his influence on rock and roll will never be forgotten."[87][88][89]

On August 21, 2009, he was buried near Milwaukee in Waukesha, Wisconsin at Prairie Home Cemetery. Paul is buried next to his mother. The two are surrounded with a brief biography of Les. A stream of visitors from around the world visit the memorial.[90][91] Like his funeral in New York on August 19, the burial was private, but earlier in the day a public memorial viewing of the closed casket was held in Milwaukee at Discovery World with 1,500 attendees who were offered free admission to the Les Paul House of Sound exhibit for the day.[92]

Guitarist Jeff Beck organized a tribute concert at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, which took place almost a year after Les Paul's death, on what would have been his 95th Birthday - on 9 June 2010. It later turned into an album, Rock'n'Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul).


Hit singles

Year Single Chart positions
US CB US Country UK[93]
1945 "It's Been a Long, Long Time"(with Bing Crosby) 1
1946 "Rumors Are Flying"(with Andrews Sisters) 4
1948 "Lover" 21
"Brazil" 22
"What Is This Thing Called Love?" 11
1950 "Nola" 9
"Goofus" 21
"Little Rock Getaway" 18
"Tennessee Waltz" 6
1951 "Jazz Me Blues" 23
"Mockin' Bird Hill"(gold record) 2 7
"How High the Moon"(gold record)A 1
"Josephine" 12
"I Wish I Had Never Seen Sunshine" 18
"The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise"(gold record) 2
"Whispering" 7
"Just One More Chance" 5
"Jingle Bells" 10
1952 "Tiger Rag" 2
"I'm Confessin'" 13
"Carioca" 14
"In the Good Old Summertime" 15
"Smoke Rings" 14
"Meet Mister Callaghan" 5 4
"Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me" 15 22
"Lady of Spain" 8
"My Baby's Comin' Home" 7 11
1953 "Bye Bye Blues" 5 14
"I'm Sittin' On Top of the World" 10 8
"Sleep" 21 31
"Vaya Con Dios"(gold record) 1 1 7
"Johnny" 15 25
"The Kangaroo" 25 23
"Don'cha Hear Them Bells" 13 28
1954 "I Really Don't Want To Know" 11 33
"South" 18
"I'm a Fool To Care" 6 13
"Auctioneer" 28
"Whither Thou Goest" 10 12
"Mandolino" 19 22
1955 "Song in Blue" 17
"Someday Sweetheart" 39
"No Letter Today" 27
"Hummingbird" 7 6
"Amukiriki" 38 24
"Magic Melody" 96 43
1956 "Texas Lady" 91 47
"Cimarron (Roll On)" 48
"Moritat" 49
"Nuevo Laredo" 91
1957 "Cinco Robles" 35 24
1958 "Put a Ring on My Finger" 32 43
"Jealous Heart" 71
1961 "Jura" 37 81
"It's Been a Long Long Time" 105


  • Feedback (1944)—compilation
  • Les Paul Trio (1946)—compilation
  • Hawaiian Paradise (1949)
  • The New Sound (1950)
  • Les Paul's New Sound, Volume 2 (1951)
  • Bye Bye Blues! (1952)
  • Gallopin' Guitars (1952)—compilation
  • The Hit Makers! (1953)
  • Les and Mary (1955)
  • Time to Dream (1957)
  • Lover's Luau (1959)
  • The Hits of Les and Mary (1960)—compilation
  • Bouquet of Roses (1962)
  • Warm and Wonderful (1962)
  • Swingin' South (1963)
  • Fabulous Les Paul and Mary Ford (1965)
  • Les Paul Now! (1968)
  • Guitar Tapestry
  • Lover
  • The Guitar Artistry of Les Paul (1971)
  • The World is Still Waiting for the Sunrise (1974)—compilation
  • The Best of Les Paul with Mary Ford (1974)—compilation
  • Chester and Lester (1976)—with Chet Atkins
  • Guitar Monsters (1977)—with Chet Atkins
  • Les Paul and Mary Ford (1978)—compilation
  • Multi Trackin' (1979)
  • All-Time Greatest Hits (1983)—compilation
  • The Very Best of Les Paul with Mary Ford'
  • Famille Nombreuse (1992)—compilation
  • The World Is Waiting (1992)—compilation
  • The Best of the Capitol Masters: Selections From "The Legend and the Legacy" Box Set (1992)—compilation
  • All-Time Greatest Hits (1992)—compilation
  • Their All-Time Greatest Hits (1995)—compilation
  • Les Paul: The Legend and the Legacy (1996; a four-CD box set chronicling his years with Capitol Records)
  • 16 Most Requested Songs (1996)—compilation
  • The Complete Decca Trios—Plus (1936–1947) (1997)—compilation
  • California Melodies (2003)
  • Les Paul – The Legendary Fred Waring Broadcasts (2004)
  • Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played (2005)
  • Les Paul And Friends: A Tribute To A Legend (2008)


  • "Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1952)
  • "Lady of Spain" (1952)
  • "My Baby's Coming Home"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1952)
  • "Bye Bye Blues"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1953)
  • "I'm Sitting on Top of the World"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1953)
  • "Sleep" (Fred Waring's theme song) (1953)
  • "Vaya Con Dios"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1953), #1, Billboard Pop singles chart, 11 weeks, August 8 – October 3, November 7–14; #1, Cashbox, 5 weeks
  • "Johnny (Is The Boy for Me)"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1953), #15, Billboard; #25, Cashbox
  • "Don'cha Hear Them Bells"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1953), #13, Billboard; #28, Cashbox
  • "The Kangaroo" (1953), #25, Billboard; #23, Cashbox
  • "I Really Don't Want To Know"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1954)
  • "I'm A Fool To Care"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1954)
  • "Whither Thou Goest"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1954)
  • "Mandolino"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1954), #19, Billboard
  • "Song in Blue"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1954), #17, Cashbox
  • "Hummingbird"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1955)
  • "Amukiriki (The Lord Willing)"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1955)
  • "Magic Melody"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1955)
  • "Texas Lady"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1956)
  • "Moritat" (Theme from "Three Penny Opera") (1956)
  • "Nuevo Laredo"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1956)
  • "Cinco Robles (Five Oaks)"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1957)
  • "Put a Ring on My Finger"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1958)
  • "All I Need Is You"-Les Paul & Mary Ford (1959)
  • "Jura (I Swear I Love You)"—Les Paul & Mary Ford (1961)
  • "Love Sneakin' Up on You"-Les Paul, Joss Stone & Sting (2005)


Paul was also a prolific composer. Some of the songs he wrote were "Song in Blue", "Cryin'", "Hip-billy Boogie", "Suspicion", "Mandolino", "Magic Melody", "Don'cha Hear Them Bells", "The Kangaroo", "Big-Eyed Gal", "All I Need is You", "Take a Warning", "Mammy's Boogie", "Up And At 'Em", "Pacific Breeze", "Mountain Railroad", "Move Along, Baby (Don't Waste My Time)", "Dry My Tears", "Deep in the Blues", "I Don't Want You No More", "Doing the Town", "Les' Blues",[94] "No Strings Attached", "Subterfuge", "Lament For Strings", "Five Alarm Fire", "You Can't Be Fit as a Fiddle (When You're Tight as a Drum)", and "Walkin' and Whistlin' Blues".

Grammy Hall of Fame

The following Les Paul recordings with Mary Ford were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

Les Paul and Mary Ford: Grammy Hall of Fame Awards[95]
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted Notes
1951 "How High the Moon" Traditional Pop (single) Capitol Records 1979
1953 "Vaya Con Dios" Traditional Pop (single) Capitol Records 2005

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Les Paul.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lester William Polsfuss.


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External links

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