Les Paul (1915 – 2009)
To say that music lost another of its heroes today seems a shallow understatement. But a visit to the Gibson guitar company’s website says it best, where a page-wide banner proclaims, “In loving memory of Les Paul, the world’s most influential, innovative guitar player and inventor.” Les Paul passed away on August 13th at the age of 94.
Les Paul had strong connection with Kalamazoo - or at least with one of Kalamazoo’s more famous manufacturers, the Gibson guitar company. Together, Les Paul and Gibson profoundly altered the face of popular music.
Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Les was already a professional performer by the age of 13. His guitar playing technique became second-to-none, but it’s said that a music critic changed the course of his life by suggesting to Les that his guitar should be louder.
During the 1930s, Paul worked up an electric prototype (affectionately called the “Log,” actually a pine board with homemade electric pickups!) and in 1941, presented it to the Gibson company in Kalamazoo. This first attempt was a miserable failure—Gibson laughed at him—but he never looked back. “I took the Log to Gibson and I spent 10 years trying to convince them that this was the way to go,” said Paul. By 1950, Gibson’s management sensed growing competition and according to Paul, said, “Go find the kid with the broomstick and the pickups on it!”
Eventually, Les Paul formed a partnership with Gibson that not only affected his own career, but dramatically changed the face of the entire music industry. Alongside the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson’s Les Paul model is perhaps the most widely known, highly acclaimed and best loved electric guitar ever made. Period.
“The men up at Kalamazoo are working overtime to fill all the orders…”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 1951
But Les Paul’s talent for invention wasn’t limited to the guitar alone. During his career, Paul pioneered such cutting edge technology as multi-track recording and overdubbing, plus commonly used sound effects like reverb and echo.
After cutting his teeth on the radio in the 1930s, Paul’s performance career skyrocketed during the 40s and 50s with partner Mary Ford. He produced his own television show in the 1950s, and did more recording during the 60s. In 1976, he released the highly acclaimed Chester and Lester, a country and jazz fusion album with Chet Atkins. Though his hands were nearly crippled by arthritis, Paul performed actively right up until the end.
A 2007 film, Chasing Sound, celebrates Les Paul’s 90th birthday by documenting some of his final performances and highlighting his incredible contributions.
According to Gibson, Les Paul is the only individual to share membership into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was also an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society.
“He put the tools in our hands,” says Keith Richards. According to B.B. King, “...he’s the Boss!”
Les Paul (Associated Press photo)