Les Paul Biography

Lester Williams Polfus, 9 June 1915, Wankesha, Wisconsin, USA. Paul began playing guitar and other instruments while still a child. In the early 30s he broadcast on the radio and in 1936 was leading his own trio. In the late 30s and early 40s he worked in New York, where he was featured on Fred Waring’s radio show. He made records accompanying singers such as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Although his work was in the popular vein, with a strong country leaning, Paul was highly adaptable and frequently sat in with jazz musicians. One of his favourites was Nat ‘King’ Cole, whom he knew in Los Angeles, and the two men appeared together at a Jazz At The Philharmonic concert in 1944, on which Paul played some especially fine blues. Dissatisfied with the sound of the guitars he played, Paul developed his own design for a solid-bodied instrument, which he had made at his own expense. Indeed, the company, Gibson, were so cool towards the concept that they insisted their name should not appear on the instruments they made for him. In later years, when it seemed that half the guitarists in the world were playing Les Paul-style Gibson guitars, the company’s attitude was understandably a little different.

Paul’s dissatisfaction with existing techniques extended beyond the instrument and into the recording studios. Eager to experiment with a multi-tracking concept, he built a primitive studio in his own home. He produced a succession of superb recordings on which he played multi-track guitar, among them ‘Lover’, ‘Nola’, ‘Brazil’ and ‘Whispering’. During the 50s Paul continued his experimentation with other, similar recordings, while his wife, Mary Ford (b. Iris Colleen Summers, 7 July 1928, Pasadena, California, USA, d. 30 September 1977), sang multiple vocal lines. Other major record successes were ‘The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise’, ‘How High The Moon’, which reached number 1, and ‘Vaya Con Dios’, another US number 1 hit.

By the early 60s Paul had tired of the recording business and retired. He and Ford were divorced in 1963 and he spent his time inventing and helping to promote Gibson guitars. In the late 70s Paul returned to the studio for two successful albums of duets with Chet Atkins, but by the end of the decade he had retired again. A television documentary in 1980, The Wizard Of Wankesha, charted his life and revived interest in his career. In 1984 he made a comeback to performing and continued to make sporadic appearances throughout the rest of the decade. He notably performed at the guitar festival in Seville, Spain, in 1992. In 2005 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 the duet with Steve Miller (who Les Paul had babysat for in 1950) on ‘Fly Like An Eagle’.

A remarkably gifted and far-sighted guitarist, Paul’s contribution to popular music must inevitably centre upon his pioneering work on multi-tracking and his creation of the solid-bodied guitar. It would be sad, however, if his efforts in these directions wholly concealed his considerable abilities as a performer.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.