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The Many Lives of Les Paul

Les Paul, the father of the electric guitar and multitrack recording, dressed in a thick, oatmeal-colored ribbed turtleneck sweater (and it’s in the high-70s and humid on this June 3rd day), navy blue trousers and black loafers, and wearing wire rimmed aviator-style glasses, is doing a sound check at 6:00 p.m., before the first of his two shows every Monday night at the Iridium Club on Broadway and 51st in Manhattan.

“Is my amp flat”? He asks. “It’s flat, Les.” Comes the reply from his soundman.

“On the dot?” “On the dot, Les.”

“It should be 4 decibels clean,” Paul replies. “In other words, when I hit this note” – Paul bangs the high E-string of his signature guitar – “it should be minus-four on the meter. On the tape machine, it should be zero. But I know this guitar is like a minesweeper, sometimes!”

Hard to believe this slight looking, but authoritative man is about to celebrate his 87th birthday next week. And even harder for me, as a part-time guitarist myself, to believe I was about to be interviewing him.

Who Is Les Paul?

Les PaulTo baby boomers, he’s the name on their, or their favorite guitarist’s instrument (as his recent commercial for Coors Beer made light of). To the previous generation, he’s a musician with a string of pop hits in the 1950s. And there are lots of older folks around who still remember his days from the 1930s, playing in Fred Waring’s Orchestra, and backing up Bing Crosby.

Clearly, while most people would be happy with one successful career, Les Paul is a man who can look back on several simultaneous lives.

Born Lester William Polfus on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he began to teach himself not only the guitar, but electronic engineering when he was just a child. He later shortened his name to Les Paul (after a brief spell known as Rhubarb Red!) and played with big bands in the 1930s, such as Fred Waring’s outfit in the 1930s and with Bing Crosby in the 1940s.

Simultaneously, he also did much developmental work on the concept of the electric guitar. His electrical engineering skills led him to finally develop the electric solidbody guitar, designed initially to reduce feedback and increase the sustain of notes and chords.

Later in that same decade, he began developing the concept of sound on sound recording, first painstakingly overdubbing part after part on a 78 rpm record cutting machine, and then later on magnetic tape. The Beatles’ complex and masterful recordings of the late 1960s, as well as virtually all popular music recorded since, use the very methods he developed. Led Zeppelin’s albums, with layer upon layer of overdubbed, multitracked guitars, and often recorded in large country homes instead of professional recording studios, would be unthinkable without Paul’s first efforts away from a studio.

Rock and Roll’s Most Popular Instrument

In 1948, Paul was critically injured in a car crash and almost lost the use of his right arm. Rather than having it amputated, he pleaded with his doctors to set it in such a fashion that he could still pick a guitar.

Thankfully, they did – and this renewed lease on not only life but also his career, was the springboard for Paul’s most important decade as a musician.

In the 1950s, he began to write, record and play guitar on numerous gold records with his then-wife, Mary Ford. He also helped to design what would go on to be one of the most important instruments in rock and roll: the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, played at various times in their careers by such notable musicians as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Bob Marley, John McLaughlin (the jazz star, not the fellow with the talk show on PBS), and Slash of Guns and Roses. And when they’re in New York, many of these musicians often stop by to watch the man whose name is on their guitar, in action.

About Ed Driscoll

  • http://www.guitaristlespaul.homestead.com Charles Dzuba

    Les and Mary recorded 4 versions of “Amukiriki.” One should be on the rare “Legend and Legacy” box set cassette and CD. The recording are about 3 minutes in length.

  • http://www.guitaristlespaul.homestead.com Charles Dzuba

    #98 To Willy Van den Berghe;
    I saw Les last night (May 7) at Iridium Jazz Club in NYC. I gave him your regards and he said, “Tell Willy I said hello.” He said he seems to remember your fan club but it was so long ago that he doesn’t remember the particulars. Letters to him can be sent to me at [Personal contact info deleted] my name and address on the Iridium Jazz Club website on the bio page I wrote for Les. Also Les said he never recorded “Delicado.” By the way, the show charge is $40 and well worth it.

  • Willy Van den Berghe

    Reply #101 & # 104
    Dear Charles
    Thank You for your “trouble” getting things straight on Delicado
    As I mentioned before I was 99’99% sure Les never recorded the song but one never knows. Glad it’s all sorted out.
    As for Brugge , I can only agree…beautiful city !Can recommend it to everyone . The more the merrier and good for the Belgian economy . After all , they (the government) have to look after my pension.
    I am living in Australia for the past 7 years Thanks again and I’ll keep an eye on your further comments
    Tell Les he hasn’t been out of my mind (thoughts) for the last 60 years (and that goes for Mary as well)
    Willy

  • Willy Van den Berghe

    Reply # 102
    Dear Amanda
    Besides on The Legend and the Legacy you should be able to find Amukiriki on
    Capitol 7 99119 2 Millions of Memories Track 14
    Rhino R31C 73039 Lil’Bit of Gold 3 Discs Released 1989
    Rajon CD 80023 Elite Fifties 5 Discs Disc 4 Track 16 Released 2003
    E.M.I 8 59972 2 Old Romantics Vol.2 Track 12 Released 1997
    The song ,backed with Magic melody , was released 30 October 1955 . It “charted” 12 November 1955 and reached # 38
    It was also released on a 45 Ext.Play “Songs of Today” Capitol EP 1-695 together with Song in Blue , Humming Bird and Magic Melody
    Les wrote me on January 2 , 1956
    …..also we did the background music for a movie titled “Amukiriki” , the theme music having the same title and was released on a record here . Perhaps it has already been released over there (Meaning Belgium)
    We did the opening for another movie , tune and picture having the same title “Texas Lady” I believe thet this picture will be released in Europe soon . This was also released on a record……
    Yours
    Les
    Hope this note will be of any use for you in finding “Amukiriki”
    Willy Connolly W.Australia

  • Willy Van den Berghe

    Correction # 106 “Amukiriki” should be (of course) “AmukUriki”( The Lord Willing)

  • Willy Van den Berghe

    Reply #102
    Dear Amanda
    Mea Culpa ,Mea Culpa , Mea Maxima Culpa
    in other words ” I AM SORRY ”
    In # 106 I have provided you with the wrong information . I took the numbers from my “Les Paul tracks on Various artists CD’s ” instead of the numbers from the Les & Mary CD’s . That means that the information I gave you was about “Nola””Tennessee Waltz ” “How High the……a.s.o You should be able to find “Amukiriki”(and NOT Amukuriki as I mentioned in # 107 (-A typing fault for which only I am responsible))besides on Disc 3 of The Legeend and the Legacy on one of the following CD’s
    The EP Collection Label See For Miles SEECD 724 Released 2001 in the U.K
    The Best of LP & MF a 3 CD-set in the Time/Life Series
    A Touch of Class Disky TC886302 Released 1998 Holland
    Blowin’ the Smoke Away from A Trail of Hits Jasmine JAS 3516
    I checked (and double-checked )this time .
    Especially the Jasmine ,Disky and See for Miles CD’s I come across on the internet , so I see no difficulties in obtaining a copy of one of them.
    Sorry for the misunderstanding in #106. I woke up last night around 2 am and felt there was something wrong so I sorted it out . That’s the trouble with me , I’m always over-enthousiastic when it has to do with Les and that makes me act before I think . Could it be that I’m a fan ???
    You , people in the U.S were lucky . You grew up watching Les and Mary on the TV but for us ,living in Europe “they”were only a photograph.Would you believe that I first saw Les actually playing the guitar was in 1992 .Before that “they” were only a photo on our mantelpiece (and they stayed as young as 40 years before)Only a couple of months ago I saw ,for the first time, Mary actually playing guitar with Les when a dear friend sent me a tape of their appearance in the Abbott & Costello show from 1954 (Thank You , Duane !!)(Not forgetting the Les & Mary at Home (Listerine)tape)I could go on for hours but my English isn’t 100% ,as you may have noticed .At night I made up the most beautiful sentences but here I sit with a case of writers block .
    Keep on going Les and ” Gruess Gott”
    Willy

  • Charlie Dzuba

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY – LES
    BORN JUNE 9, 1915 AND AT 92 STILL GROWING STRONG
    BIRTHDAY PARTY AT IRIDIUM TONIGHT (JUNE 11)

  • Charlie Dzuba

    Les Paul’s friend Jon Paris (Blues singer and harmonica player)sent this to me; National premier of “Chasing Sound” about Les Paul by American Masters will air on Wednesday July 11, 2007 at 9PM (Eastern Time) on PBS.
    Jon can be seen at B.B. King’s Lucille’s Bar & Grill at 7th and 42nd street NYC, on Monday nights. He usually stops by at Les’ late show.

  • http://www.rushisaband.com BOB

    Does Anyone Know If Alex Lifeson Of Canadian Power Rock Trio “RUSH” Using Les Paul Guitars On The New RUSH Album SNAKES AND ARROWS Tour?
    http://www.rushisaband.com
    http://www.2112.net
    Has Alex Lifeson Ever Met LES PAUL?

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx gonzo marx

    Alex Lifeson always has his guitars custom made, NO plastic on any of his instruments, metal and wood only.

    Falcon guitars in New Jersey made a few for him, i met the guy a few times and got the info from him

    Excelsior?

  • Martin Bryk

    Answering Bob#111 -Quote from Alex Lifeson:”I may end up going exclusively Gibson for this tour.” (Snakes and Arrows) Alex says he used the old ES-335 for 60% of the new album but he is also using a beautiful LES PAUL Goldtop Reissue. Alex says that Geddy says,”You should only ever have a Les Paul in your hands.” -guitaronemag.com June 2007 issue of the magazine has Lifeson cover story(inside is great pics of Alex with goldtop LP).

  • http://www.lpstop.com Les Pauls

    Excellent article! Just watched the show on PBS. Les Paul is great.. the guitar and the man.

    Thanks!
    j

  • Bert Morrien

    Reply on #104:
    So I have to realize that Les Paul never recorded Delicado. That makes me wonder who played the one I am looking for, because I cannot find it in the rather big collection of Delicado recordings that I examined. But that’s another question.
    Nevertheless, I am very happy with the many other wonderful recordings that Les (and Mary) made!

  • alecia

    exellent article im doing an eminent persons project and i chose him as someone that has changed the world for the good!! :D ( i luv my Guitars! )

  • http://www.lpstop.com Les Pauls

    I just watched this show again… talk about an inspiring story! And.. man did he have the chops back in the day. Very unusual to see someone so musically talented, and successful… and have the desire to invent/build things. Makes me realize, I should be doing ALOT more.

    J

  • william.

    Can someone tell me what echo machine les uses on stage?
    Love the man!!william.

  • Charlie Dzuba

    Response to #114 & #117 (“Chasing Sound);
    Saw Les at the Iridium on Sept. 3, 2007. Gave me his DVD “Chasing Sound.” It’s 90 minutes long which is an additional 30 plus minutes more than shown on PBS. I understand the DVD can be had from $11.00 to $35.00.
    Response to #118 (Machine(s) Les uses on stage at the Iridium); as of the above date Les uses; Digital Delay, Reverb, Tremelo – Boss, a Boss Tuner and Chorus. I got this information from Chris Lentz (www.rubarbred.com and http://www.redhotred.com.)
    Chris is Les’ “all-around man.” He is Les’ videographer, photographer, and assists Les’ in the “Green Room” as well as “on the road.”
    Les still looks and plays well even with a severe case of osteoarthritis.

  • Danny Daughtry

    To Bert Morrison
    The artists that recorded Delicado were Ray Anthony, Marion Brown, Jimmy Dorsey, Percy Faith, Woody Herman, Michel LeGrand, Edmond Ros And Dinah Shore.
    Long live Les Paul. I am a big fan of his.

  • Louie Seven

    I have read all these comments and enjoyed same.
    Les played at the Great American Music Hall in August of 1975. We had seats at the front table, and I recorded both shows on audio tape. Les gave me his pick at the end of the program. His son Bobby played drums and Les demonstrated the Les Paulverizer. This was one of the first shows he did after coming out of semi-retirement and was probably not much different from the shows he was doing before he went into semi-retirement. That is to say, he didn’t make any changes in the pre-recorded accompanyment – Bing’s Voice – etc.

    Les Paul is the greatest electric guitarist that ever lived. By that, I refer to his flawless timing, his flawless taste, and his flawless execution of flawless material.

    Do I seem biased ?

    Regards,

    Louie Seven

  • Doris Leister

    I am told that Les Paul is in our family tree and would like to verify this. If someone in his family is into geneology could they check this out? The names that might match are Boser, Ellenbecker, Odenbrett, Mauritz, Ewan, Neuenfeldt, Dressl. Thanks Doris Ellenbecker Leister

  • Nick

    During the 70′s I worked for Mario Maccaferri (Django Reinhardt’s Selmer/Maccaferri Luthier) not as a musician or luthier, but as an engineer for Mr.Maccaferri’s plastic molding business. Mr.M
    was an excellent classical guitarist as well. He called me down to his office stating that he had a treat for me. When I walked in, there was Les Paul. The two had been longtime friends probably due to Les’ admiration of Django. Any way it was a great experience to be in the room while the two talked music, guitars, guitars and more guitars. Mario made the mistake of telling Les that I played guitar. So Les said “Play something Nick” I said “Mr Paul I only love guitars but love alone does not a player make” He laughed and was very complimentary to my inept guitar skills. It was an experience I will always treasure.
    Several years later my son Frank visited the Iridium and was stopped by stage hands back stage when trying to get Les’ autograph. Les was in ear shot when Frank stated that his dad worked for Mr.Maccaferri and asked him to get Les’ autograph. Les came out and said he remembered the visit and gave Frank an autograph and a photo.
    There have been many Geniuses, but few have as big a heart as L.P.

  • http://comcast.net Jag

    Saw Les Paul at the Iridium on New Year’s Eve (last night). Enjoyed the show..definitely recommend it.

  • http://hubpages.com/hub/The-Gibson-Les-Paul-Guitar Vinnie Gibson

    What a great article. Even now years after you wrote it. If you don’t mind I am going to link to it from My hbpage on Les Paul Guitars it gives a more rounded understanding to our Guitar culture.

  • shiva mudliar

    you rock dude

  • Willy Van den Berghe

    Reply on # 115
    Dear Bert
    Maybe this may solve your problem with the recording of Delicado in the 50′s
    Go here where you can download and listen to Delicado with guitar solo by Jorgen Ingman as I already “told” you in my comment # 60 (May 2005)Maybe that’s the one your looking for And Les Paul fans …..what’s keeping you ? Only 3 comments in the first 4 months of 2008 ?????You can do better than that !!!!!
    Greetings from ‘Down under ”
    Willy

  • Anthony Black

    My dad always believed that the Les Paul guitar was the highest standard of quality that an elecrric guitar could be measured by. Needless to say he and I have always been great fans of Les. Dad died several years ago and left me his 1952 Les Paul. Does anyone know if I would stand a snowball’s chance of getting Les to autograph it. Is he still playing in New York? I have no plans of letting the guitar leave the family, but I know my dad would be extreemly proud to know that Les Paul himself signed it or played it.
    Any insight would be greatly apreciated.
    thanks,
    ab

  • http://eddriscoll.com/weblog.php Ed Driscoll

    Hi Anthony,

    As was the case six (!) years ago when I wrote this article, Les is still playing two shows every Monday night at the Iridium Club in New York.

    To the best of my knowledge, he still signs autographs at the end of his second show, and he’ll sign virtually anything. For example, many a Les Paul guitar on eBay with an autographed pickguard got that way because a player took that pickguard to the Iridium for Les to autograph it.

    So I’d check with the Iridium to make sure it’s still the second show that Les signs autographs, and then make a beeline to Manhattan.

    Ed

  • Joel Brennan

    Hi all -

    I am the CEO of a Science and Technology Museum in Milwaukee, WI. You may be aware that Les was born about 15 miles from Milwaukee in Waukesha. Well, we put together a stunning exhibit using some of Les’ personal collection of guitars, sound equipment and other innovations. We also had some great loans from the Rock Hall and other regular folks to round out the collection.

    We just opened the exhibit at the end of June, and it will be up for at least 6 months until the end of the year (could be longer). Come and take a look.

    Here is some information about Les and the exhibit from the opening. He came for the unveiling and to play a concert at our Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Read on and enjoy.

    If you want to learn more about the exhibit and how to get here.

    We are proud to honor Les Paul and look forward to sharing this exhibit with his fans!

    Joel Brennan

  • Dave Hoffman

    To all,

    I am with an organization called Guitars not Guns please check us out! Our mission is to take guns out of childrens hands and replace them with musical instruments.

    I have been tirelessly trying to contact Mr. Paul to try and get him behind us, possibly as a spokesperson. We are all volunteer music teachers and this project is so important, especially in big cities where crime is rampant! If ANYONE knows how to contact Mr. Paul, please, pass this on to him, or send me an agents E mail address. I can be contacted at guitarsnotguns.com or [Personal contact info deleted]

    Thanks so much!

    Dave Hoffman

  • Charlie Dzuba

    To Ed Driscoll;

    I’ve posted a few comments (#97,101,103,104,109,110 and 119) on your site and stated that it is the best website for Les Paul fans – period.
    My question is; Would you consider putting the “comments” in reverse chronological order so we don’t have to scroll all the way down to view the last comment? Thank you

  • brad pitt

    LES PAUL IS THE GREATEST

  • john hamilton

    When I was five years old, I heard “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise” by Les Paul & Mary Ford. That was 50 years ago, and I’ve been hooked on Les Paul ever since! I’ve been fortunate enough to have met Les,and to have seen him play “live” twice in my life. The first time in 1976 in Oklahoma City, and then in New York City in 1992. Les is a true guitar hero, a great entertainer, and one hell of a guitarist. Anyone who plays the electric guitar should listen to Les Paul’s recordings, especially the ones with Mary Ford from the 1950′s. The sound of Les’ guitar on those records is fabulous, and still sounds fresh today in 2009!

  • Luke Easter

    Les Paul (In Memorial) 1915-2009

    This looks like just another ho-hum year but wait,
    6/9/15 has produced a talent, unparalleled & great,
    How come? Many births this month and year so far,
    Delivered today was the father of the electric guitar.

    Big band, jazz, rhythm & blues, classical, rock & roll,
    6 strings was never before blessed with so much soul,
    Oh yeah, with music so unique and full of life that’s all,
    Simply a sound unlike any other thanks Mr. Les Paul.

    A guitar is the heartbeat, oh yeah, leader of the band,
    Rhythm, orchestra, gently cradled by woman or man,
    Showcased in front, Hendrix, Clapton, Vaughn, King,
    Ellis in the background, Rait and others make it sing.

    Benson, Montgomery, where to begin, where to stop?
    Cray, Perry, Prince, Slash & Van Halen, made it pop,
    All the way to 94 even Les himself could carry a tune,
    His passing only means showtime is now on the moon.

    Hey! Trillions of stars will sway to the masterful beat,
    While planets rotate in harmony and stomp their feet,
    There are two Creators in heaven, The Original & Les,
    Angels are happy they’ll be getting lessons from the best.

    A legacy to be left wherever music is played then heard,
    Many have even taken the task, skillfully adding words,
    Radio, MP3, ipod, record player, studio, stereo in the car,
    Can’t imagine how any would sound w/o an electric guitar.

    © 2009 by Luke Easter

  • Willy Van den Berghe

    Thank you Les
    AMEN

  • Jim Evans

    I am a retired disc jockey and radio personality. I was a close personal friend of Les Paul. Much of the statements in this article, innocent though they seem, are, in fact, false. I have written a 600+-page book releasing the truth about this wonderful guitarist. His life was filled with prevarication, which I have carefully screened and exposed. The book will come out early next year. [Personal contact info deleted]

    Cordially,
    Jim Evans

  • Bert Morrien

    Around 1955 my brother gave me two 78 rpm records featuring Les Paul & Mary Ford. We, my brother, my sister and I, are sure that these records featured the following titles: “Whispering”, “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise”, “How High The Moon” and “Delicado”. The latter is the one composed by Waldyr Azevedo, but it is possible that Les Paul gave his arrangement another title.
    I have lost the original records, but the strange thing is, that I cannot find any trace of Les Paul’s version of “Delicado”, some people even insist that Les Paul never recorded it.
    As far as I know, the mentioned records were brought here by my father from Ireland, but I cannot remember the label.
    Les Paul was one of a kind and every time I hear him, he touches me, even after all these years.
    I wonder if I will ever hear his “Delicado” again, I can still remember every note of it.