Les Paul Biography

(Jazz Guitarist: One of the Pioneers of the Solid-body Electric Guitar)

Birthday: June 9, 1915 (Gemini)

Born In: Waukesha, Wisconsin, United States

American jazz, country, and blues guitarist Les Paul was not just a talented musician but also a pioneering inventor of musical instruments and techniques. He teamed up with Gibson Guitar Corporation to create the iconic Gibson Les Paul, the world’s first solid-body electric guitar, which later redefined the music industry and was used by musical stalwarts, such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. He also brought in innovative musical practices, such as overdubbing, reverb effects, use of echo chambers, and sound-on-sound recording. Apart from winning multiple Grammys, he made it to the Grammy and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. He is also remembered for his collaborations with his second wife, Mary Ford.

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Quick Facts

Also Known As: Lester William Polsfuss

Died At Age: 94

Family:

Spouse/Ex-: Mary Ford (m. 1949–1964), Virginia Webb (m. 1938–1949)

father: George Polsfuss

mother: Evelyn Polsfuss

siblings: Ralph

children: Colleen Paul, Gene Paul, Robert Paul, Russell Paul

Born Country: United States

Guitarists American Men

Died on: August 12, 2009

place of death: White Plains, New York, United States

U.S. State: Wisconsin

Cause of Death: Pneumonia

discoveries/inventions: Multitrack Recording

Childhood, Early Life & Education

Born Lester William Polsfuss, on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, US, Les Paul was of German descent. His parents, George and Evelyn (Stutz) Polsfuss, divorced when Paul was still a child.

He had a brother named Ralph. Before becoming famous by his stage name, Les Paul was also known as Red Hot Red and Rhubarb Red.

He began singing at local events as a pre-schooler. He also learned the piano and taught himself how to play the guitar, banjo, and harmonica.

Since childhood, he was also interested in experimenting with his musical instruments and improving them by tweaking their mechanical settings. He once made a recording machine using automobile parts and a dentist’s drill. He also built an amplifier with radio and telephone parts.

In high school, he started his experiments with solid body electric guitars. He was 13 when he began performing at events, semi-professionally. He was also part of a high school band named Rube Tronson's Cowboys, where he performed as Red Hot Red.  The band also had adult members and was financed by Chicago’s WLS Radio.

Paul later dropped out of school to perform as part of Sunny Joe Wolverton's Radio Band at a radio station in St. Louis. He thus took up the moniker Rhubarb Red. He was mentored by Wolverton at the station.

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Music Career

In 1934, Paul moved to Chicago and started performing jazz music, taking up the pseudonym Les Paul. At the same time, however, he continued to perform on radio as Rhubarb Red.

In 1937, he created his first trio and released two albums. He then moved to New York with his first wife, Virginia Webb Paul, and became a regular performer on radio broadcasts of Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians. He worked there till 1941.

In 1943, he moved to Los Angeles, where he formed the country and jazz trio, the Les Paul Trio, and performed with many big names in the music industry, such as Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters, and Bing Crosby. He also managed his own radio program while in Chicago.

In the 1950s, he performed mostly with his second wife, Mary Ford, or Colleen Summers. After releasing scores of hit albums, Paul went into oblivion in 1964.

However, he returned to the music scene later, recording with Chet Atkins in 1976 and with the Guitar Monsters in 1978. From 1984 till a few months before his death, he also appeared for regular trio performances in New York City.

Contribution to the Evolution of Music & Musical Instruments

By the 1930s, electric hollow-body guitars were becoming popular. However, Paul was not happy with the existing models.

He believed a solid body model would produce a better sound and have reduced feedback and better sustainability.  He worked on his first prototype of the solid body guitar, which he named the Rail, from a piece of rail retrieved from a train track, when in high school.

In New York, a decade later, he created a modified prototype out of a piece of wood and an Epiphone guitar neck, which he named the Log. He proposed the new guitar design to the Gibson Musical Instrument Co. in the early 1940s, but they opted to stick to the arched, hollow-body electric models and rejected his offer.

Contemporary inventors such as Leo Fender, and Paul Bigsby encouraged him to continue playing his innovative guitar. Bing Crosby motivated him to work from his own studio.

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He soon started experimenting with music sounds and recording devices too. In the process, he developed multi-track recording, which helped musicians play and record multiple segments of a song.

In February 1948, the first multi-track record, Lover (When You're Near Me), was released by Capitol Records. It had Paul playing eight separate tracks on his electric guitar.  The same year, he played six separate parts for the song Brazil.

In 1951, Leo Fender created a solid-body electric guitar named the Broadcaster. Gibson thus asked Paul to create a product that could compete with it and soon collaborated with Paul to create the iconic Les Paul Model. The model, introduced in 1952, was a huge hit.

The Les Paul guitar was known for its aesthetic single-cutaway shape and could produce full-bodied tones. Many iconic musicians, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Peter Frampton, and Slash from Guns ‘N’ Roses, used the Les Paul guitar to produce their hard rock music. Additionally, modern guitarists, such as Matt Heafy of Trivium and Lee Malia of Bring Me the Horizon, have used the Les Paul to produce their signature rock and metal music.

In 1953, he and Mary Ford released a cover of the hit How High the Moon. The track was an instant hit and sold 1.5 million copies. Paul continued to improve the multi-track recording system until 1957 and thus built a solid ground for the technique for future generations.

Paul also popularized innovations such as reverb effects, sound-on-sound recording, overdubbing, and echo chambers, which inspired the future generations of musicians. His ideas modeled the blues and rock-and-roll music of the late 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s, too, he inspired musicians of versatile genres, such as rock, blues, metal, country, and alternative.

Awards & Achievements

Paul has won many awards throughout his musical journey. He has earned multiple Grammy Awards, including the one in 1977 for his instrumental duet with Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester, and the two Grammys for the tracks Caravan and 69 Freedom Special in 2006. In 1979, he was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

He was also named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005. In 1996, he received the Smithsonian Institution’s John Smithson Bicentennial Medal.

Personal Life

Les Paul married his first wife, Virginia Webb in 1937. The couple had two children, Les Paul Jr. (Rusty), born in 1941, and Gene, born in 1944.

In 1949, Paul and Webb divorced. The same year, he married Mary Ford (born Iris Colleen Summers). The two witnesses at their wedding were Dr. George and Bertha Miller, who were parents of future rock star Steve Miller. In fact, Les Paul was the godfather of Steve Miller.

Their first child, a girl, was born prematurely on November 30, 1954, but she died four days after her birth. In 1958, they adopted a girl named Colleen.

The following year, their son, Robert (Bobby), was born. The couple divorced in December 1964.

He lost a few bones of his right elbow in an automobile accident. His right arm was thus permanently damaged and artificially mounted to help him play a guitar.

Death & Legacy

Paul passed away on August 12, 2009 in White Plains, New York. He had formed the Les Paul Foundation in 1995. Though dormant till his death, the foundation later supported music education, engineering, and medical research.

Awards

Grammy Awards
2006 Best Pop Instrumental Performance Winner
2006 Best Rock Instrumental Performance Winner
2001 Technical Grammy Award Winner
1983 Trustees Awards Winner
1977 Best Country Instrumental Performance Winner

See the events in life of Les Paul in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Les Paul Biography
Author
- Editors, TheFamousPeople.com
Website
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URL
https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/les-paul-8893.php

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