Les Paul's sound affected a generation of guitar players and blazed the electric guitar path that lead to Rock-n-Roll. His music and his innovations are still creating new ideas and sounds today.
Les Paul was born Lester William Plosfuss, June 9 in Waukesha Wisconsin in 1915. You would have not guessed a boy from Wisconsin would change the face of modern music.
But he did, Les Paul was a jazz guitar player in the making from the very beginning, though he got is start playing country music.
But he was the jazz guitar player who brought jazz into country and the blues. Jazz is truly the musical gift born in America and its original gift to the world. It was jazz that made him unique in the world of music. His country, blues, and pop recordings were infused with his take on the jazz guitar. The way he formed his cord progressions had never been styled the way he had done it. His tempo and delayed attack of the pick in his right hand, his brand of sliding the cord with his left hand, made his guitar playing popular.
His sound affected a generation of guitar players and blazed the electric guitar path that led to Rock-n-Roll. His music and his innovations are still creating new ideas and sounds today.
Les Paul began playing country music first though. His first instrument was a harmonica, then the banjo, in his early teens, it was the guitar he fell in love with.
In those times, radio broadcasting was born and it was the mass media that could reach out live and touch anyone with its immediacy, like today’s Internet now does. It touched Les Paul and before he was out of high school he was hooked, so he dropped out to be part of the Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis.
This is were Les Paul was exposed to southern blues or as some like to call it, Mississippi Delta Blues, it was music from the black juke joints that populated the banks of the Mississippi and the back woods across the south. It was a different time; a unique era, and Les Paul found the amazing sound coming from out dark of the night and ate it up.
Les Paul worked his way up the Mississippi to Chicago where he continued in radio and made his first two albums. He was not known on his first record has Les Paul; it was Rhubarb Red, which must have seemed better than Lester Plosfuss at the time, the second record he played on was with Georgia White. At that time it was on a 78 speed record that was thick, black, and brittle.
By 1938 he was ready for New York and had built himself as a guitar player who was technically fantastic and innovative with his pick work. He started to mix blues, jazz, and country, beginning to define his own new and unique sound. His first gig was in a trio with Jim Atkins and Ernie Newton, who doubled on bass and drums.
By 1943 his talents were well known and he decided Hollywood was the place for him, it was new, fresh, and the movie business had begun to grow up around the orange orchards of Southern California. It was a place an innovator could spread his wings.
Traveling had become a progression, like his cords and developing his own sound, and by the time he reached California he was ready to go national. It was a move that put him in fates way.
In 1944 his first huge brake came when he went on the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic in Los Angeles as a walk on replacement and stepped into the arena with the great Nat King Cole. This would be like stepping on stage today with the likes of Paul McCartney, Elton John, or Stevie Wonder.
It was Bing Crosby who spotted the gifted Les Paul and began to foster his career, supporting his innovations, and then taking his unique guitar sound and popularizing it in a number hit one hit, “It’s Been A Long Long Time.”
The Bing Crosby connection was more than a musical collaboration, it was a business partnership. Or maybe it could be said, using century’s old terminology. Les Paul had found his Patron King. Bing was the King of music, before Elvis carried the crown. In the matter, of a few years, Les Paul was working with the best in show business.
In 1946 he did “Rumors Are Flying” with the Andrews Sisters. He came back in 1948 with the landmark, “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” and “Brazil” on the flip side, and “What is This Thing Called Love?”
Jay David Murphy
Photo of a Les Paul and Mary Ford album cover that featured some of their greatest hits from a private collection.
It was two years later in 1950, the other piece of the Paul puzzle appeared on a record. Tennessee Waltz was Mary Ford’s introduction to the world, later the two names were synonymous, Les Paul and Mary Ford it was a voice and a guitar that complimented each other as if it was preordained.
They would go on to record hit songs through 1961 together. They had a bad divorce in 1964 and by 1977 she passed, September 30th, due to complications from diabetes. Their list of hits is impressive and their impact on modern pop music is part of the fabric today’s music.
Their hits over the years also includes, “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” Vaya con Dios,” “How High the Moon,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” “My Baby’s Coming Home,” “Whispering,” the classic “Lady of Spain,” “Bye Bye Blues,” the timeless tune, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.”
Several albums come to mind growing up with a father who also played jazz guitar with a lot of the greats.
"The New Sound" from 1950, "Les and Mary" from 1955, "Les Paul Now!" and "Guitar Tapestry" in 1968.
This is were this journalist has to expose a bit of his history with Les Paul and the personal affect on his life.
Growing up in a small town in southeastern Arizona in the music store, provided a vibrant and exciting environment to be exposed to, the music store was a window to the world to peek into and connected small communities across America to the big cities and a national culture of popular music.
In small rural towns across the US, in a time before box stores and shopping malls, there was main street USA. There was a drug store, shoe store, florist, the five and dime, a bank, a bar, and a music store.
Each had its function in the culture and as America grew up and JC Penny and the Sears store came to small towns, so did Les Paul and Mary Ford on a record in your local music store or juke box, or radio, and later on television. They would mark changing music and technology.
In the late 1940s, Les Paul joined with Big Crosby, to bring his genius in sound innovation that went beyond cords and licks of a guitar, and took music into the future.
Les Paul was like an astronaut of sound, he was a visionary of sound reproduction, amplification, recording technology, and of course the inventor of the guitar that carries his name, The Les Paul.
Jay David Murphy
The classic "Black Beauty" the Les Paul Guitar.
Did Les Paul invent the solid body electric guitar? No, he was part of the history of its beginning, sharing the credits of its development with Adolf Rickenbacher and Leo Fender. It was Gibson that he collaborated with and put his name on his signature guitar.
In the 30’s, Paul had built his own solid body electric guitar and it had a name, “the log,” to his credit it is considered by some to be the first solid body usable electric guitar ever made, it was a prototype for what was yet to come. It was Gibson who took Les Paul’s design specifications and created a marketable mass producible guitar.
The 1952 Les Paul Gold Top (made of Mahogany and Maple) was the first, then came the second in 1954, the Black Beauty with its mahogany top, the Les Paul Custom. Later in 1957 Gibson added humbucker pickups. There are lot of other details about this guitar that would and should be considered firsts, but the things that stood out were its design and its wide rosewood fret board, which was a carry over from the acoustic guitar and really created a standard for all electric guitars except the Fender, which used pine as its signature fret board.
Later they created the Les Paul Junior, an introduction guitar for the beginner player, and at roughly the same time came the Les Paul TV, which was made with a yellow color, so it could be seen without the glare caused by the black and white cameras of television.
As the decades began to turn, the Les Paul continued as it does today. Still the classic Les Paul “Black Beauty” holds up as one of the most beautiful solid body guitars ever created.
In 2008 Gibson introduce its new version of the Les Paul Standard. It is built using the traditional specs laid originally down by Les Paul. You could say that after 50 years of variations and innovations, Gibson went back to the original drawing board of the master, and went old school. Les Paul really did get it right the first time. For decades everyone tried to reinvent the wheel he built, they tried to improve on it, but in the end, they went back the beginning and rediscovered what they had from day one, perhaps the greatest guitar ever conceived by a man.
Since the first Les Paul signature guitar, some of the greatest talents since have played his creation.
Jimmy Page stormed Rock and Roll in his Led Zeppelin, tearing up records and arenas with the thunderous thick sound of his Les Paul guitar.
Ace Frehley and Kiss can credit a huge part of their success to the Les Paul guitar which was a critical part of their sound.
Bob Marley took the Les Paul and made it sound clear and clean, then added his unique upstroke and became the godfather of reggae.
Randy Rhodes took the fat sound of the Les Paul and melded it with a classical music background and brought heavy metal a sound that is still changing popular music.
The Gibson Les Paul guitars have given life to Rock-and-Roll and with this musical axe, still fells modern music with its tone quality and amazing versatility.
What more could you say about a man who created the wheel?
Les Paul helped us hear that musical wheel turn. He found ways to let us enjoy the music that came from the wheel he created.
The 1972 Gibson Recording guitar made of a hunk of mahogany, which he endlessly worked on, was his favorite axe to grind for audiences to enjoy as late as last year. Les Paul still had regular gig in New York until he was 93 years old. He had played music since a child and almost played an instrument for 100 years.
It is such a beautiful thing, that for almost 100 years someone played music at such a high level of expertise that it really is almost incompressible and has to be some kind record.
But his contributions reached beyond the guitar and into the recording studio and its equipment and innovations.
Capitol Records took the song “Love (When Your Near Me)” and showed the world what a multi track would sound like. This experiment, that Les Paul worked on in his garage, had him playing 8 different guitar solos on top of each other. The recording changed music reproduction forever.
Today, mixing boards can create and blend a endless number of layers of sounds, to create one unique piece of music. But there was a time, when what you heard and recorded is what you got.
The artist had to be a top talent and be able to lay down a song without any mistakes, they had to get the whole song in one take and everyone had to be a great musician.
Today’s artist relies heavily on mixing to create a song and can now digitally enhance their voices. Some would say that there is a difference in talent from the early years of the recording industry. Mainly being, live acts had play every gig they could get to be considered for a record label.
Today, many people with hits have rarely have done live performances and their recorded performance in the studio is fostered in the editing room by sound engineers that create the mass produced song that is sold to the public.
That’s not to say that all musicians out there don’t or didn’t come from live performance, but the abundance of quality musicians with live experience may be at question.
One example is the disappearance of the variety show, when talent came together to all sing together, and many times at the drop of the hat and never having played music together.
Here it comes; in the day, what you might call ‘old school’ they had to sing and play their instruments great, they had to be talented and well rehearsed. That’s why programs like American Idol are the closest thing to a variety show that exists today and would explain its popularity and its validity. Those kids can’t fake it, they got to sing.
Lets call this next part of this story, cord progression, the Les Paul affect, not unlike the butterfly affect.
When Les Paul began recording his licks with multiple tracks, he made it possible for music recording to evolve, the vibration carried through the decades and continues to reverberate today.
Bring Crosby made it possible for Les Paul and Jack Mullin (who found a Magnetophone and reels of tape in Germany during WWII) to become American inventors of modern recording equipment and techniques.
Jack Mullion with Crosby money, started Ampex the word in recording for decades. For those who don’t know, sound records on tape as a chemical reaction to vibration not unlike exposing light to film, which also creates by a chemical reaction bring an image to life. Bing financed Mullin and he rebuilt and redesigned the technology he had acquired from Germany.
Today, recording is now being done digitally, just like photographs, and film. In the beginning, it was only professionals who could do such wonders, but now children record music, film themselves skateboarding, and photograph themselves to put on My Space at will, cheaply and effectively. Les Paul was really one of the first kids who got to play with recording sound on tape, cutting the trail that leads to kids today, making music on their computers digitally.
One of the challenging moments for Les Paul came in 1948 when he was badly injured in a car accident shattering his right elbow. He had to make a choice, where to have his right arm set for life, which he had surgeons set it to permanently play guitar.
For others this would have been the end, for him it was just another evolution in his iconic career and the bulk of his years of making music laid before him, which was road that he traveled for another 50 years.
Courtesy of Gibson
Promotional photo of Les Paul was distributed by Gibson.
Les Paul’s musical journey came to end, on August 13, 2009 in his home in White Plains, New York with his family at his side and his music playing in the back ground.
The Les Paul affect may continue well into the next century or for as long as people record sound. He flapped his wings almost 100 years ago for the first time, soared a lifetime, and left the musical breeze he created behind, to make music cool for generations to come. That’s jazz.
Les Paul, the musician and inventor, creator and artist, husband, father, grand father and great grandfather. That’s jazz.
Les Paul, he was a jazz guitar player who tapped into the blues while bringing country and pop to millions of people around the world. That’s jazz.
Les Paul was more than a name on a guitar, he was a music butterfly whose wings finally stopped beating, the world stopped and listened, and then said “Vaya Con Dios.”
Now that was jazz, Les Paul a guitar god.