When someone lives to be 94 years old, especially someone who lived as full a life as Les Paul did, you usually don’t look up in the sky and ask God why he had to be taken. The thing is though, until very recently, Les was holding down a regular gig, delighting audiences at Iridium in New York City every Monday night. He continued to be a working musician almost until his dying day.
Of course Les Paul is known not just as a great guitar player, but as an innovator who made a lot of the music that we love possible. Among his many achievements, he is best known for developing the solid body electric guitar, in the form of the Gibson guitar that bears his name, and for creating multi-track recording. As if that wasn’t enough, after creating the electric guitar “that made the sound of rock and roll possible,” he developed sounds for it such as tape delay, and phasing.
Les Paul was born in Waukesha, WI in 1915. By the age of 13, he was playing semi-professionally as a country music guitar player. Over the years, he worked as a musician in radio, and backed singers like Nat ‘King’ Cole, Bing Crosby, and the Andrews Sisters. He first built “the Log,” one of the first solid body electric guitar, in 1939. In 1951 he signed a contract with Gibson Guitars allowing them to use his name on a guitar they had built according to his specifications. This, of course, was the famous Les Paul “Goldtop.”
In 1947, Capitol Records released a record called “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” on which Les played eight guitar parts, the first multi-track recording. These recordings were done on acetate discs, not magnetic tape. There were hit records with his wife Mary Ford in the ’50s, including their biggest hit, “How High the Moon,” which featured Mary harmonizing with herself. They also brought their act to television for a couple of years. During this period his input was critical to the development of the first multi-track tape recorders by Ampex.
By the late ’60s, Les was in semi-retirement, though he continued to record albums into the ’70s. In the late ’80s, Les returned to active performing, and in 2006 he won two Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played.
While on the road in Oklahoma in 1948, Les was involved in a very bad car accident. His arm and elbow were broken, and doctors told him that the arm would never regain movement, and would remain in whatever position it was set in. Les instructed the doctors to position it so that he could continue to play guitar. The amount of music and innovation we would have missed had Les not made this decision is hard to fathom.
Les Paul died in White Plains Hospital on August 13, 2009 of complications from pneumonia. God rest his soul.
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