Les Paul, the guitarist and game-changing inventor whose spirit and intelligence reverberates throughout modern music, died Thursday at age 94.
He was remembered by his fans as “Thomas Edison, with reverb.”
“Les was an inventor and a futurist who really invented modern guitar music,” said Henry Juszkiewicz, CEO of Gibson Guitars. Gibson’s Les Paul model, created by the guitarist, became the company’s best-selling instrument.
“He was a futurist and, unlike many futurists who talk about the future, he made the future happen,” said Juszkiewicz. “In 1985 Les told me, ‘You know, Henry, in the recording business, all the recording is [eventually] going to be done on chips. This moving, rotation stuff is for the birds.’ ”
Paul, in other words, foresaw the mp3 revolution about 20 years before it happened.
It would not be the first time. Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisc., the youngster was, by his own description, the only guitar player in his town and a frustrated one at that. He wanted it louder. Tinkering with his mother’s telephone, he created pickups, then rebuilt a radio to create his own amplifier.
This led, more or less directly, to the contemporary electric guitar.
“What we did was take an acoustical instrument — which was a very apologetic, wonderful, meek instrument — and turned it into a pit bull,” he later told Spinner Web site.
Not satisfied with one revolution, Paul took apart an Ampex Model 200 tape recorder to develop multi-track recording, which made the modern recording industry possible.
“He absolutely transformed the nature of recording,” said Greg Quesnel, manager of Southern Tracks Recording on Clairmont Road. “One of my guys said he’d never met Les Paul and I said, ‘Everything you use every day he invented, so you sort of met him.’ ”
Bing Crosby sponsored Paul’s recording experiments and the two collaborated several times, including on the No. 1 hit from 1945, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”
In the 1950s Paul recorded a string of Top 40 hits with his wife, Mary Ford, including “How High the Moon,” “Bye Bye Blues” and “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” multi-tracking her voice into a smoothly-blended choir and multiplying himself into a guitar army. They divorced and Mary Ford died in 1977.
While Paul reduced his profile in the 1960s, he came back to regular performing in the 1980s, playing gigs at New York clubs. Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club became a regular showcase for the nonagenarian. Atlanta guitarist Barry Richman, who is also a Gibson artist, sat in with Paul at the Iridium several years ago, bringing along his own 1958 Les Paul standard guitar.
“What a wonderful fellow,” said Richman. “We sat backstage for a couple of hours and talked and one thing that stood out, we were talking about his inventing of multitrack recording. And all of a sudden he got this serious look on his face and said, ‘You know, a lot of times I wish I’d never invented it. It took the life out of music. Everything today is spotless and squeaky clean. There’s not one little mistake in music; they go back and fix it.’ ”
For Les Paul, the spirit and sound mattered as much as the polish. At age 90 he won two Grammys for his album “Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played.”
About the Author