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Les Paul

Les Paul had such a staggeringly huge influence over the way American popular music sounds today that many tend to overlook his significant impact upon the jazz world. Before his attention was diverted toward recording multi-layered hits for the pop market, he made his name as a brilliant jazz guitarist whose exposure on coast-to-coast radio programs guaranteed a wide audience of susceptible young musicians. Heavily influenced by Django Reinhardt at first, Paul eventually developed an astonishingly fluid, hard-swinging style of his own, one that featured extremely rapid runs, fluttered and repeated single notes, and chunking rhythm support, mixing in country & western licks and humorous crowd-pleasing effects. No doubt his brassy style gave critics a bad time, but the gregarious, garrulous Paul didn't much care; he was bent on showing his audiences a good time.

Though he couldn't read music, Paul had a magnificent ear and innate sense of structure, conceiving complete arrangements entirely in his head before he set them down track by track on disc or tape. Even on his many pop hits for Capitol in the late '40s and early '50s, one can always hear a jazz sensibility at work in the rapid lead solo lines and bluesy bent notes -- and no one could close a record as suavely as Les. And of course, his early use of the electric guitar and pioneering experiments with multi-track recording, solid-body guitar design, and electronic effects devices have filtered down to countless jazz musicians. Among the jazzers who acknowledge his influence are George Benson, Al DiMeola, Stanley Jordan (whose neck-tapping sound is very reminiscent of Paul's records), Pat Martino, and Bucky Pizzarelli.

Paul's interest in music began when he took up the harmonica at age eight, inspired by a Waukesha ditch digger. Paul's only formal training consisted of a few unsuccessful piano lessons as a child -- and although he later took up the piano again professionally, exposure to a few Art Tatum records put an end to that. After a fling with the banjo, Paul took up the guitar under the influences of Nick Lucas, Eddie Lang, and regional players like Pie Plant Pete and Sunny Joe Wolverton, who gave Les the stage name Rhubarb Red. At 17, Les played with Rube Tronson's Cowboys and then dropped out of high school to join Wolverton's radio band in St. Louis on KMOX. By 1934, he was in Chicago, and before long, he took on a dual radio persona, doing a hillbilly act as Rhubarb Red and playing jazz as Les Paul, often with an imitation Django Reinhardt quartet. His first records in 1936 were issued on the Montgomery Ward label as Rhubarb Red and on Decca backing blues shouter Georgia White on acoustic guitar. Dissatisfied with the electric guitars circulating in the mid-'30s, Paul, assisted by tech-minded friends, began experimenting with designs of his own.

By 1937, Paul had formed a trio, and the following year, he moved to New York and landed a featured spot with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, which gave him nationwide exposure through their broadcasts. That job ended in 1941 shortly after he was nearly electrocuted in an accident during a jam session in his Queens basement. After a long recovery period and more radio jobs, Paul moved to Hollywood in 1943, where he formed a new trio that made several V-Discs and transcriptions for MacGregor (some available on Laserlight). As a last-minute substitute for Oscar Moore, Paul played in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles on July 2, 1944; his witty chase sequence with Nat Cole on "Blues" and fleet work elsewhere (now on Verve's Jazz at the Philharmonic: The First Concert) are the most indelible reminders of his prowess as a jazzman. Later that year, Paul hooked up with Bing Crosby, who featured the Trio on his radio show, sponsored Les' recording experiments, and recorded six sides with him, including a 1945 number one hit, "It's Been a Long, Long Time." On his own, Paul also made several records with his Trio for Decca from 1944 to 1947, including jazz, country, and Hawaiian sides, and backed singers like Dick Haymes, Helen Forrest, and the Andrews Sisters.

Meanwhile, in 1947, after experimenting in his garage studio and discarding some 500 test discs, Paul came up with a kooky version of "Lover" for eight electric guitars, all played by himself with dizzying multi-speed effects. He talked Capitol Records into releasing this futuristic disc, which became a hit the following year. Alas, a bad automobile accident in Oklahoma in January 1948 put Les out of action again for a year and a half; as an alternative to amputation, his right arm had to be set at a permanent right angle suitable for guitar playing. After his recovery, he teamed up with his soon-to-be second wife, a young country singer/guitarist named Colleen Summers whom he renamed Mary Ford, and reeled off a long string of spectacular multi-layered pop discs for Capitol, making smash hits out of jazz standards like "How High the Moon" and "Tiger Rag." The hits ran out suddenly in 1955, and not even a Mitch Miller-promoted stint at Columbia from 1958 to 1963 could get the streak going again. After a bitter divorce from Ford in 1964, a gig in Tokyo the following year, and an LP of mostly remakes for London in 1967, Paul went into semi-retirement from music.

Aside from a pair of wonderfully relaxed country/jazz albums with Chet Atkins for RCA in 1976 and 1978 and a blazing duet with DiMeola on "Spanish Eyes" from the latter's 1980 Splendido Hotel CD, Paul was long absent from the record scene (some rumored sessions for Epic in the '90s have not materialized). However, a 1991 four-CD retrospective, The Legend & the Legacy, contained an entire disc of 34 unreleased tracks, including a breathtaking electrified tribute to the Benny Goodman Sextet, "Cookin'." More significantly, Paul began a regular series of Monday night appearances at New York's Fat Tuesday's club in 1984 (from 1996, Les held court at the Iridium club across from Lincoln Center), attended by visiting celebrities and fans for whom he became an icon in the '80s.

In 2005 American Made World Played by Les Paul & Friends was issued. Unlike most albums featuring "famous" friends, this contained some exceptional music. The list of contributors was impressive: Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Richie Sambora, Jeff Beck, and even a sampled Sam Cooke. One of the highlights was a duet with Steve Miller (who Les Paul had babysat for in 1950) on "Fly Like an Eagle." Although arthritis slowed Paul's playing down in his later years, he continued to perform, with his repertoire largely unchanged from the '30s and '40s, practically up to his death due to complications from pneumonia in 2009 at age 94. At any given gig, one could still learn a lot from the Wizard of Waukesha. A remarkably gifted and farsighted guitarist, Paul’s contribution to popular music must inevitably center upon his pioneering work on multi-tracking and his creation of the solid-body guitar. It would be sad, however, if his efforts in these directions wholly concealed his considerable abilities as a performer. ~ Richard S. Ginell, Rovi
full bio

Comments

Les doing 'Guitar Boogie'...no effects yet, no Les Paul guitar yet, and still tasty & masterful. It was all in his hands long before he took the guitar to the future. Thanks Les
Listen to Caravan really good he made that way always. Great Music Artist. I will forever love his music.
The master
lboike3
He was/is for music what God was for creation.
gwhill18, good point, but you kind of overlooked Les INVENTED most of the electronic gadgetry. Les is a true Icon of jazz, blues, and by default, Rock N Roll!
Isn't it amazing that with all the electronic gadgetry available today, NO ONE can approach his ingenuity today!! Absolutely amazing!!
if any of you subscribe to steve king and johnnie putnam there is a tribute to les on his past birthday which would have been his 98th, there is video from that tribute
tazman614
My favorate Les Paul's Little Rock Get Away !! Out standing


Art Taschner
Hello Richard S. Ginell,
Thanks for an excellent bio on Les Paul. It was nice to see that you carried Les Paul to the end!! So many of the bios leave me hanging as to what they're doing NOW!!! I notice it more with the bios on Latin/Hispan i c artists.

Again thanks,
David
wloughran600
Listened to Les Paul Mary Ford in
1950s great then great now!!!
salisbury.sa w y e r
All I can say is, 'WOW!', What a natural talent in all areas, blues, jazz, acoustic, electronic, inventing, performing, audiation beyond comprehensio n , arranging, multi-level storing in his brain followed by the production. Just awesome - soft to firey.
myers45_acp
As a kid, I heard lots of Les Paul stuff, not realizing that he was a blues master as well as a jazz expert. But it should come as no surprise; the man could make a guitar simply get up, walk and talk. Hail to a maestro!
happy birthday Les,we miss you.Thank You
justachump
Les is more.
Thanks Les.
Hey guys, I wound up here on this site because I was talking about Steve Miller. Who will have the first hissy fit? Really, Steve Miller, Buddy Guy and Les Paul, (okay, we're bending a bit , but really. It could happen) Did.
He taught everyone to speak (on guitar). I am honored to be in a generation that saw him perform, I love him!
Got to see him at the Iridium 5 months before he passed. He stayed to sign free autographs for anyone who wanted one after the show.
sewy8
Where would today's guitar players be without the influence and inventions of Les Paul? He was truly a musical genius. Let's not forget Mary. What a voice! As a youngster, I fell to sleep many a night listening to their relaxing tunes. If you have not seen the video of Les' life, you NEED to see it. A great story.
painthell
a true gentleman.
invdad1
When I was a young man during the '50's Les Paul electrified my interest in both romantic and jazz music. All of his music was unquely creative and non-stylized in a way which kept me always listening and searching for any new songs that he put together. He made the guitar seem like a totally new kind of instrument. It gave a person a sense of wholesome excitement about music and our culture at the time. I wish his style of music would return again to our somewhat drab and gawdy music wo
Without Les - nothing!
dfoote89
Listening to the Grammies the other night with limited interest came to the "end of the road" series of the artists that have passed in the last year, one being Les Paul. To bring Jeff Beck up to play a Les Paul/Mary Ford piece was truly wonderful. Beck takes a back seat to no one and certainly did his mentor well. Had I not know it was Beck, I would have thought that it could only be Paul.
The master has created incredible influence. He has also laid the path for other masters of this fine cra
fantastic
A truly unique innovator and creator, of both hardware and music, both far ahead of the times. Thanks for the memories.
fordtbird
He will still be playing but he will be playing to Angels and they will love it as I did for so many years. Rest is peace Mr. Paul
R.I.P
visualynne
We who grew up with Les Paul know his greatness.
dustin_lat
Thank you Les for so many great musical accomplishme n t s , your talents will be missed.
shivasthirde y e
RIP Les
paul8550
Always playing somewhere.
A sad day today... I'm listening to "Les Paul radio" all day in remembrance.
paulownian
Even though I love the work and dedication that Les Paul has put into the world of music, I must clear up one or two facts: Les Paul DID NOT invent the electric guitar. Many people had a hand in the development, begining in the 1920's and 1930's. Chief among these guitar makers and players were: George Beauchamp and Paul Barth; they came up with the Rickenbacker "Frying Pan" guitar. Besides Rickenbacker , National, Epiphone and Gibson were early contributers . Les Paul started experimentin g at the
You left out the invention of the electric gutiar.
cdhornbeck
Les is just one awesome human.
Les Paul started it all ! And when people started copying him - he changed and came up with the "new sound". It was an honor to meet him that time at Fat Tuesday's and ask him to sign my Gibson...he did." This is a good one, " he said as he signed it. I am looking forward to seeing him at Iridium soon...that guitar, the Gibson Les Paul is one of the greatest inventions of all time - I am the proud owner of 2...(and 1 Epiphone).Th a n k s Les !
Les Paul is a force of nature.
A wonderful video out on his 90th birthday is available on Netflix, mixing his live performance in NYC with his fabulous history. He takes you into his storeroom where he still has the original multi-tracke r he had built in the 50's, the tapes, and a roomful of guitars. He plays some of the very first "New Sound" recordings on the old machine. Leaves you drooling...
wksmith76
Not just a great artist, but an innovator who forced the revamping of the recording industry, thanks Les.

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