Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Lester Polfus, 9 June 1915, Waukesha WI; d 13 August 2009, White Plains, NY) Guitarist and inventor. He learnt harmonica, guitar and banjo at an early age, began on radio in Racine, then in Milwaukee in the early 1930s; a regular on WLS in Chicago, then leader of the WJJD house band '34; he played country music as Hot Rod Red or Rhubarb Red. He formed the Les Paul Trio '36, moved to NYC and the combo became regulars on Fred Waring's NBC radio show through '41.

He was already building his own electric guitars, and moved towards jazz as he worked for Chicago and Los Angeles radio stations; he worked for Armed Forces Radio and became an NBC staff musician in Los Angeles upon discharge. He recorded for Decca with Bing Crosby and others; the trio's 'Blue Skies' was regarded as seminal by those who linked Paul's name with that of Charlie Christian. He worked with Art Tatum '44, probably the only guitarist fast and flexible enough to match him. 'Rumours Are Flying' '46 with the Andrews Sisters was a hit; he toured and recorded with JATP and recorded with Clancy Hayes on Mercury. His experimental side moved into high gear: he took the first solid-body electric guitar to Gibson '46, they called it a 'broomstick', relented in '47 but would not put their name on it at first. The Les Paul model became one of the most famous guitars in the world.

'Lover'/'Brazil' '48 was a two-sided hit on Capitol, overdubbed until there were six guitars. That year he broke his right elbow in a car crash, and told that it would henceforth be immobile, had it set at an angle so he could still play. The instrumental hits continued through '53 including 'Nola' (a piano novelty from 1916, Paul playing both Spanish and steel guitar), 'Whispering', 'Meet Mr Callaghan', 'Lady Of Spain', all top ten. Meanwhile he had met country singer Colleen Summers (b 7 July 1928; d 30 September 1977; she had sung with the Gene Autry band); they married '49, he renamed her from a phone book, and Les Paul and Mary Ford were among the biggest hitmakers of the 1950s, 28 hits '50-7 on Capitol including 'Mockin' Bird Hill', 'The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise', 'Tiger Rag' at no. 2, 'How High The Moon' and 'Vaya Con Dios' at no. 1. The latter stayed at the top for eleven weeks in '53, and holds up better than most pop hits of the period. Almost all were recorded in Paul's own studio using an 8-track deck of his design, both his guitar and her voice overdubbed, his equipment and techniques years ahead of their time. They had a TV show, Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home, broadcast from their home, until 1958; they had had more top 40 hits on Columbia '58 and '61, but separated '63; he retired from active music-making to concentrate on inventing.

He came back with an album Les Paul Now '68 on London and became more active again in the 1970s, performing and promoting guitars for Gibson; he moved full circle back to country picking, with his old friend Chet Atkins on the Grammy-winning Chester And Lester '77 and Guitar Monsters '78. He retired again, and was the subject of a TV documentary The Wizard Of Waukesha '80; he had a quadruple-bypass heart operation in 1981 and had begun to suffer from arthritis, but was able to teach himself new ways to play despite it. He began weekly gigs at Fat Tuesday's in NYC in October '84 and switched to Iridium when Fat Tuesday's closed in 1995. In 2005, celebrating his 90th birthday, he made his last album, American Made, World Played on Capitol, with guests including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. It won two Grammys. He continued playing weekly at Iridium until a few days before his 94th birthday, the wizardry still evident.