Les Paul in His Own Words (and anniversary)


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Les Paul in His Own Words, by Les Paul and Michael Cochran
I received quite a few books for my birthday this time, and this is one I’m really excited about. The original hardback came out in 2009, while the centennial paperback edition was released in 2016. To start out with, though, I have to be honest. I’ve only dabbled with acoustic guitar a little, back in the ’80s, and while I have a beginner’s bass right now, I haven’t had many opportunities to practice with it so far (I’m trying to change that and get into the habit of picking it up for at least a few minutes a day, anyway). My real interest has long been with synthesizers, but after reading the book on Robert Moog, I felt that the next big legend to visit in electric music would have to be Les Paul. Otherwise, I knew very little about him what I started out.

Les was a musician first, and a tinkerer second. He was born June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, as Lester William Polsfuss. His mother tried to teach him piano, but after learning harmonica, he switched to the guitar. He was playing country music by age thirteen, going by the names Red Hot Red and Rhubarb Red, but he also had a strong interest in Jazz. He dropped out of high school, and joined traveling bands that took him to St. Louis, then Chicago, and ultimately he made the move to New York City as part of his main goal of getting good enough to play for Bing Crosby. Eventually, he took on the name Les Paul, and played with the Les Paul Trio (generally with a second guitarist and a bassist, and the line-up would change over time). He moved to California, rented a house that was large enough to hold his own hand-made recording equipment, got drafted and ended up in the Armed Forces Radio Network. He did convince Bing to hire his group to play in the Crosby orchestra, and Bing helped him out a few times, including buying him his own Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck (Bing invested $50,000 in Ampex in part based on Les’ comments about tape being the next new recording format).

Les had married once, when he was still in the Wisconsin area, but his wife couldn’t handle his touring schedule. Between them they had 2 children. Later, he met Iris Colleen Summers, who had been singing as part of the Sunshine Girls. Les convinced her to join his group under the name Mary Ford, and they soon started dating. Les’ first wife agreed to a divorce, although Les and Mary didn’t get married until some time later. Les was working on the concept of multi-track recording with the Ampex, and he and Mary started releasing records as Les Paul and Mary Ford, on the Capitol label. They had several major hits, which attracted the attention of Listerine company, which in turn sponsored the Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home TV show on NBC from 1956-57, then syndicated to 1960. The TV show was unique in that Les decided to sign the contract to air five 5-minute pieces per day, 5 days a week, plus re-editing the show to also run on the radio. The show was recorded in their new home in New Jersey, and new additions were being built on to it all the time to house the TV crews and equipment. Unfortunately, Mary had a miscarriage, and between the subsequent depression and the stress of always being on the go, or surrounded by TV people, on top of suffering from constant stage fright, she divorced Les in 1964. She had drinking problems, got remarried, then died in 1977 in a diabetic coma.

After the divorce, Les kind of went into a tail spin, and his recording career ground to halt. He’d put his body through a lot, from going several days in a row without sleep in order to play radio dates and work on his ideas for an electric guitar, to  accidentally grabbing the power cable of an amateur broadcast transmitter he’d built, while still grounded, and having his muscles ripped apart when they seized up. He’d been in a really bad car accident (Mary had been driving in a snow storm and the car spun off a cliff when she hit a patch of ice) that destroyed his right arm; when it was rebuilt it was stuck in a permanent right angle. Later, he had a heart attack that almost killed him, and as he was getting older, he lost the movement of all parts of both hands, except for his left pinky finger. Through mishaps with friends (both of whom clapped him on the side of his head from behind as a greeting), he ended up getting both eardrums blown. Through all of this, he remained optimistic, and through a huge amount of good luck and the assistance of the many friends he’d made, he still enjoyed himself, and kept playing guitar on Monday nights with a jam group at the Iridium Jazz Club up until his death at age 94 on Aug. 12, 2009.

Notice that Les Paul’s musical career was in country music and Jazz, and had come mostly to an end by 1965, when I was still only 8 years old. To me, his was just a name on the Gibson line of electric guitars, and I still haven’t picked up an electric lead guitar yet. So, after reading the Moog book, I was looking at Les more as an electronics innovator and not as a musician, and I had no emotional baggage with me regarding his musical past. In His Own Words is a pretty unvarnished look at Les’ life, and the primary focus is on his music and the musicians that he played with. On the other hand, he does talk about how his desire for a “Les Paul sound” drove him to create his own electric guitar, his own plate cutting recorder, multi-track recording, and tape-based delay. He doesn’t go into any real technical details for how his gear worked, but he does throw terms like impedance and harmonic feedback around expecting the reader to know what they mean.

And there are guitars. Photo after photo of guitars, promo posters for various musicians and singers, and pictures of himself, his mother, Mary Ford, and his two kids from his first marriage. Plus, he talks about his interactions with Gibson and Fender, and how Gibson came about to produce the Les Paul signature line of guitars.

From a history viewpoint, this book is a nice look at the music scenes from the 1920’s to the 50’s, and introduces Les’ own idols, including Django Reinhardt, and a number of country and jazz greats. It’s an interesting contrast to the Moog book (Analog Days), and is worth keeping in your library. Overall, highly recommended.

To Les Paul: June 9, 1915 – Aug. 12, 2009

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