August 13, 2009
Les Paul, the virtuoso guitarist and inventor whose solid-body electric guitar and recording studio innovations changed the course of 20th-century popular music, died Thursday in White Plains, N.Y. He was 94.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, the Gibson Guitar Corporation and his family announced. .
Mr. Paul was a remarkable musician as well as a tireless tinkerer. He played guitar alongside leading prewar jazz and pop musicians from Louis Armstrong to Bing Crosby. In the 1930s he began experimenting with guitar amplification, and by 1941 he had built what was probably the first solid-body electric guitar, although there are other claimants. With his guitar and the vocals of his wife, Mary Ford, he used overdubbing, multitrack recording and new electronic effects to create a string of hits in the 1950s.
Mr. Paul’s style encompassed the twang of country music, the harmonic richness of jazz and, later, the bite of rock ’n’ roll. For all his technological impact, though, he remained a down-home performer whose main goal, he often said, was to make people happy.
Mr. Paul, whose original name was Lester William Polsfuss, was born on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. His childhood piano teacher wrote to his mother, “Your boy, Lester, will never learn music.” But he picked up harmonica, guitar and banjo by the time he was a teenager and started playing with country bands in the Midwest. In Chicago he performed for radio broadcasts on WLS and led the house band at WJJD; he billed himself as the Wizard of Waukesha, Hot Rod Red and Rhubarb Red.
His interest in gadgets came early. At the age of 10 he devised a harmonica holder from a coat hanger. Soon afterward he made his first amplified guitar by opening the back of a Sears acoustic model and inserting, behind the strings, the pickup from a dismantled Victrola. With the record player on, the acoustic guitar became an electric one. Later, he built his own pickup from ham radio earphone parts and assembled a recording machine using a Cadillac flywheel and the belt from a dentist’s drill.
From country music Mr. Paul moved into jazz, influenced by players like Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang, who were using amplified hollow-body guitars to play hornlike single-note solo lines. He formed the Les Paul Trio in 1936 and moved to New York, where he was heard regularly on Fred Waring’s radio show from 1938 to 1941.
In 1940 or 1941 – the exact date is unknown – Mr. Paul made his guitar breakthrough. Seeking to create electronically sustained notes on the guitar, he attached strings and two pickups to a wooden board with a guitar neck. “The log,” as he called it, if not the first solid-body electric guitar, became the most influential one.
“You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding,” Mr. Paul once said.
The odd-looking instrument drew derision when he first played it in public, so he hid the works inside a conventional-looking guitar. But the log was a conceptual turning point. With no acoustic resonance of its own, it was designed to generate an electronic signal that could be amplified and processed – the beginning of a sonic transformation of the world’s music.
Mr. Paul was drafted in 1942 and worked in California for the Armed Forces Radio Service, accompanying Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith and others. When he was discharged in 1943, he was hired as a staff musician for NBC radio in Los Angeles. His trio toured with the Andrews Sisters and backed Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, with whom he recorded the hit “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” in 1945. Crosby encouraged Mr. Paul to build his own recording studio, and so he did, in his garage in Los Angeles.
There he experimented with recording techniques, using them to create not realistic replicas of a performance but electronically enhanced fabrications. Toying with his mother’s old Victrola had shown him that changing the speed of a recording could alter both pitch and timbre. He could record at half-speed and replay the results at normal speed, creating the illusion of superhuman agility. He altered instrumental textures through microphone positioning and reverberation. Technology and studio effects, he realized, were instruments themselves.
He also noticed that by playing along with previous recordings, he could become a one-man ensemble. As early as his 1948 hit “Lover,” he made elaborate, multi-layered recordings, using two acetate disc machines, which demanded that each layer of music be captured in a single take. From discs he moved to magnetic tape, and in the late 1950s he built the first eight-track multi-track recorder. Each track could be recorded and altered separately, without affecting the others. The machine ushered in the modern recording era.
In 1947 Mr. Paul teamed up with Colleen Summers, who had been singing with Gene Autry’s band. He changed her name to Mary Ford, a name found in a telephone book.
They were touring in 1948 when Mr. Paul’s car skidded off an icy bridge. Among his many injuries, his right elbow was shattered; once set, it would be immovable for life. Mr. Paul had it set at an angle, slightly less than 90 degrees, so that he could continue to play guitar.
Mr. Paul, whose first marriage, to Virginia, had ended in divorce, married Ms. Ford in 1949. They had a television show, “Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home,” which was broadcast from their living room until 1958. They began recording together, mixing multiple layers of Ms. Ford’s vocals with Mr. Paul’s guitars and effects, and the dizzying results became hits in the early 1950s. Among their more than three dozen hits, “Mockingbird Hill,” “How High the Moon” and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” in 1951 and “Vaya Con Dios” in 1953 were million-sellers.
Some of their music was recorded with microphones hanging in various rooms of the house, including one over the kitchen sink, so that Ms. Ford could record vocals while washing dishes. Mr. Paul also recorded instrumentals on his own, including the hits “Whispering,” “Tiger Rag” and “Meet Mister Callaghan” in 1951 and 1952.
The Gibson company hired Mr. Paul to design a Les Paul model guitar in the early 1950s, and variations of the first 1952 model have sold steadily ever since, accounting at one point for half of the privately held company’s total sales. Built with Mr. Paul’s patented pickups, his design is prized for its clarity and sustained tone. It has been used by musicians like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Slash of Guns N’ Roses. The Les Paul Standard version is unchanged since 1958, the company says. In the mid-1950s, Mr. Paul and Ms. Ford moved to a house in Mahwah, New Jersey, where Mr. Paul eventually installed both film and recording studios and amassed a collection of hundreds of guitars.
The couple’s string of hits ended in 1961, and they were divorced in 1964. Ms. Ford died in 1977. Mr. Paul is survived by three sons, Lester (Rus) G. Paul, Gene W. Paul and Robert (Bobby) R. Paul; a daughter, Colleen Wess; his companion, Arlene Palmer; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. In 1964, Mr. Paul underwent surgery for a broken eardrum, and he began suffering from arthritis in 1965. Through the 1960s he concentrated on designing guitars for Gibson. He invented and patented various pickups and transducers, as well as devices like the Les Paulverizer, an echo-repeat device, which he introduced in 1974. In the late 1970s he made two albums with the dean of country guitarists, Chet Atkins.
In 1981 Mr. Paul underwent a quintuple-bypass heart operation. After recuperating, he returned to performing, though the progress of his arthritis forced him to relearn the guitar. In 1983 he started to play weekly performances at Fat Tuesday’s, an intimate Manhattan jazz club. “I was always happiest playing in a club,” he said in a 1987 interview. “So I decided to find a nice little club in New York that I would be happy to play in.”
After Fat Tuesday’s closed in 1995, he moved his Monday-night residency to Iridium. He performed there until early June; guest stars have been appearing with his trio since then and will continue to do so indefinitely, a spokesman for the club said.
At his shows he used one of his own customized guitars, which included a microphone on a gooseneck pointing toward his mouth so that he could talk through the guitar. In his sets he would mix reminiscences, wisecracks and comments with versions of jazz standards. Guests – famous and unknown – showed up to pay homage or test themselves against him. Despite paralysis in some fingers on both hands, he retained some of his remarkable speed and fluency. Mr. Paul also performed regularly at jazz festivals through the 1980s.
He recorded a final album, “American Made, World Played” (Capitol), to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2005. It featured guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Sting, Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. The album brought him two Grammy Awards: for best pop instrumental performance and best rock instrumental performance. He had already won recognition from the Grammy trustees for technical achievements and another performance Grammy in 1976, for the album “Chester and Lester,” made with Chet Atkins.
In recent years, he said he was working on another major invention but would not reveal what it was.
“Honestly, I never strove to be an Edison,” he said in a 1991 interview in the New York Times. “The only reason I invented these things was because I didn’t have them and neither did anyone else. I had no choice, really.”