Update 08.13.09: Music Innovator, Icon and Legend Les Paul Dies at Age 94
This article about Les Paul, born Lester William Polfus (Polsfuss) in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915, could have easily and appropriately been featured in the Music Legends section on this website. But we've chosen to put Les here, under Innovators, because truly most people (even music fans) are generally unaware of the enormous impact Les Paul has had on music. (And the Legend continues to this day!)
We found it staggering that nearly 30 years after Les was Guitar Player Magazine's cover story (written by Jon Sievert) in 1977 when HE WAS ALREADY A LEGEND...he was perhaps as equally unknown then as now for many of his incredible break-through contributions to music.
"When Les Paul appeared on the 1977 Grammy Awards show, more than a few people in the viewing audience were undoubtedly surprised to discover that he was neither (1) dead, nor (2) a guitar. Les, then 61, was not there for one of those tributes accorded creaking pioneers of the recording industry. He was there to receive a Grammy that he shared with Chet Atkins for the Best Country Instrumental Performance: Chester and Lester. The album was the first he had recorded in more than ten years, and the award represented just another notch in one of the most remarkable careers in show business history...
"...his experiments with, and inventions of, presently routine recording techniques such as echo delay, phase shifting, sound-on-sound, overdubbing, and multiple-track recording, revolutionized the recording industry, catapulting himself and Mary Ford into national stardom in the early '50s. Additionally, he is responsible for the idea and design of the first eight-track recorder, and [of course] the world's most prestigious guitar bears his name."
Click here to read the entire Guitar Player Interview.
We Need a Louder Guitar!
There's a brilliant website which documents in words and pictures a guitar-history exhibit called "From Frying Pan to Flying V," produced by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, in association with the Chinery Collection, at the National Museum of American History, (November 1996 through October 1997).
Regarding the invention of the electric guitar: "The desire to increase the sound of the guitar existed long before the development of electrical amplifiers and speakers. Musical performances in the 19th century were characterized by ever-larger concert settings and ensembles. Musicians needed louder and more powerful instruments, which became possible by using new materials and designs."
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, larger and more resonant guitar bodies or "boxes" began to be developed. Different types of wood were tried to achieve a "louder" result. Steel guitar strings and "tops" came into vogue.
"...In the 1920s, as public dance music became more popular and the infant recording industry required high volume to capture a musical performance, guitar makers increased their efforts to develop ever-louder guitars. Some people continued experimenting with larger sizes and metal bodies; other innovators started to focus on electricity as a possible aid."
By the 1930s, Les Paul was already established as a highly-touted young jazz guitarist and was working in Chicago, playing radio shows. His first records were released in 1936, one under the pseudonym Rhubarb Red, Paul's hillbilly alter ego. The other was as back-up to blues singer Georgia White.
Paul was not satisfied with the performance of the newly developed electric guitars that were sold at the time. He created his own design, "The Log" which was actually nothing more than a piece of common "4 x 4" fence post with a bridge, a guitar neck, and pickup attached.
To make it look more like a traditional instrument, he sawed the body of an Epiphone lengthwise, and glued "The Log" in between the sections.
According to Wikipedia, "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."
The Gibson - Les Paul Story
"In the early '50s, when the solidbody guitar first became commercially viable, Gibson designed an instrument that would change the image of the solidbody electric from a simple plank of wood to an elegant, stylish piece of art. Such a guitar would be a radical move for a traditional company like Gibson, but Gibson had been founded on the radical mandolin and guitar designs of Orville Gibson back in the 1890s. This new model would have the same carved-top contours that had set Orville's instruments apart from all others.
"With the new model almost ready for market, Gibson approached Les Paul, the obvious choice to help launch it. Les was already intimately familiar with the unique characteristics of a solidbody electric guitar. And he was at the top of his career. His 1948 hit, "Brazil," featured six guitar parts, all played by Les in a virtuoso demonstration that would eventually earn him recognition as the father of multi-track recording. When he combined his guitar and electronic talents with the vocals of his wife Mary Ford, the result was gold— two million-selling records in 1951, "Mockin' Bird Hill" and "How High the Moon."
"The Les Paul Model, as it was originally called, has changed little since its debut in 1952. Except for an updated bridge and humbucking pickups, the Les Paul Standard of today is still the same guitar. The Les Paul has been the driving force behind many changes in popular music. It powered the blues rock sound of the late '60s and the southern rock of the late '70s. By the '90s the Les Paul was providing signature sounds for every genre of rock, from alternative to metal."
The Father of Modern Sound Recording
Les Paul had been experimenting with multi-track recording from as early as 1930 -- on acetate discs -- by layering several guitar tracks on the inside and outside bands of the disc.
After recovering from a serious accident in which he was almost electrocuted during a jam session, Les Paul moved to Hollywood in 1943, formed a new trio, and made some V-Disc recordings. V-Disc was a record label founded during the World War II era by special arrangement between the United States government and private U.S. record companies, notably RCA and Columbia. (Note: According to Wikipedia, "Columbia Records is the oldest continually used brand name in recorded sound, dating back to 1888.")
During this period in Hollywood, Paul was given the opportunity to fill in for guitarist Oscar Moore on the inaugaural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles in 1944. His dazzling musical interaction with the famous Nat King Cole, documented on Verve's Jazz at the Philharmonic: The First Concert helped solidify Les as one of America's premier jazz players.
Crooner Bing Crosby featured Les and his band on his popular radio show
and a new and important asscociation was born, leading to Paul's
recording with Crosby of the hit, "It's Been A Long, Long Time." Crosby
was proactive about furthering his record-making career and was
intrigued by Paul's ingenuity, urging Paul to build his own recording
studio and helping to fund the project.
At this time, Paul was still recording to acetate disc, as tape recording was just being pioneered. (Tape recorders developed by the German company AEG/Telefunken came into use around 1937 and were used extensively during World War II, notably for German propaganda broadcasts.) In his new Croby-sponsored studio, he fashioned a new recording lathe using the flywheel from a Cadillac! But his recording process was about to change.
According to the Columbia University Department of Music, "In 1949 Paul was working for Bing Crosby and Bing came over to his house and said he had something in his car for Les. Paul figured that it was a trunkload of Cheese because they were doing a radio program for Kraft Cheese at the time. But it was something quite a bit more precious than that. It was the very first Ampex 300 series tape machine. He said that he studied it for about 3 or 4 hours and suddenly realized that by modifying this device he would be able to do what he had been doing in his garage anywhere. By adding a fourth head to the Ampex machine, sound on sound recording would be possible.
"He had always recorded his guitar direct to the tape machine by plugging into a mixer. It was a mono machine and he had to put the last parts down first. The least important parts first and the most important parts last. In the beginning it was just Les playing on his own, but he soon added his wife, vocalist Mary Ford later on. Recording the song in backwards order. He was recording up to 37 generations before he finished his recordings, but the quality would diminish with each pass.
"...Paul got the 4th recording head by calling Ampex and telling them that he blew one of the heads and needed a new one. He had it sent to Chicago. Paul made his living by creating radio shows for NBC and records for Capital records. He took a huge leap of faith and decided he could do everything that he had been doing in his garage with the new tape machine. So he packed up and moved to New York with the new 3 head tape machine assuming that he could get a fourth head and make it work - something that had not been previously tried. In Chicago he got the head, mounted it and found that sound on sound recording would work."
Also in 1949, Les Paul met a young singer by the name of Colleen Summers who was a back-up vocalist for the thriving cowboy-crooner Gene Autry. After suggesting that she change her name to Mary Ford (some accounts say it was a marketing ploy; that Les thought she needed a two-syllable name to go with "Les Paul"), he began making records with Ford, and a long string of hits, culminating in 1953 with Vaya Con Dios which remained at #1 on the national record charts for nine weeks.
With all of Les Paul's fame associated with the world-renown solid-body "Les Paul" signature guitar, it is a surprisingly overlooked fact that Les Paul was indeed the father of modern sound recording (and a brilliant jazz guitarist, producer, arranger, and performer as well)! From his studio came forth virtually all of the recording techniques which are the staple of the industry to this day: sound-on-sound recording (now ubiquitously called "multi-track" recording), echo-delay, reverb, phase-shifting, and even close mic-ing. (According to Columbia University, "Previous to this there was an unwritten rule that vocalists should be placed no closer than 2 feet from the microphone. Les wanted to capture every nuance of his wife Mary Ford’s voice so he had her stand right on the mic, a couple of inches away. It sounded so good that everybody immediately began recording vocals this way.")
Les Paul pioneered equalizers and amplifiers which allowed for sonic "headroom" (the maximum allowable signal level before the sound becomes distorted), soon to be an important component in the burgeoning Rock and Roll music scene.
From Bill Haley and the Comets' genre-launching "Rock Around The Clock" (the "hot signal" or volume of which is credited by some with the real start of rock music) to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the sophisticated music recording industry that people around the world have come to know and love, all owe a HUGE DEBT to the genius of Les Paul.
As of this writing in 2006, Les Paul continues to amaze and delight
music lovers. Having held court since 1996 as resident Monday night Jazz
Impresario at New York City's Iridium Jazz Club, the five-time Grammy
Award winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and musical wizard hosts a
legion of music legends -- Keith Richards, Tony Bennett, George Benson,
et al. -- who undoubtedly are there to praise the "father of the
electric guitar," and who are already keenly aware that when it comes to
music as we know it today...Les is More.
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