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Les Paul

Birth of a Guitar Icon
 
Photo: David Schenk, courtesy of Gibson.

Photo: David Schenk, courtesy of Gibson.

Fifty years ago, Gibson’s new Les Paul Model was quickly becoming one of the company’s most popular guitars, and (though there was no way of knowing it at the time) was on its way to achieving mythical status in the realm of the electric solidbody.

With the recent observation of the model’s golden anniversary, Vintage Guitar traveled to the scenic northern New Jersey home of the guitar’s namesake to find out how it all happened. Les Paul’s home was the perfect environment, given that part of his reputation was built on the groundbreaking NBC television show “Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home,” which aired in the mid 1950s.

When a tape recorder is running, Les Paul is comfortable, no matter if he’s playing guitar or merely discussing his adventuresome life.

Learning To Play
In the 1920s, a very young Lester Polfuss fell in love with the guitar, which was far from being the predominant instrument of its time, bowing to the more popular tenor banjo, plectrum banjo, ukulele, piano, mandolin, and violin.

“There just weren’t very many guitar players around at that time… guitar players who could play, anyway.”

Still, he put in the many thousands of hours of practice necessary to inch toward the top of the heap, and kept an ear tuned to famous guitarists of the day. He (along with several other up-and-comers) was particularly inspired by Eddie Lang.

“Eddie was sort of the cow with the bell,” said Les. “I thought he was playing correctly, so I fell in love with his playing. I thought, ‘This is a good person to follow.’ He was my mentor in the very early days. He was who I wanted to learn from.”

And learn he did, but not without innate assistance.

“You must have rhythm, an ear, determination, belief, and you must be ready to roll up your sleeves and work for the rest of your life,” he said. “You set your goals and don’t give up.”

After developing his chops, he moved to Chicago to make his mark.

“I got a Sears and Roebuck guitar, then a Dobro,” he said. “I joined ‘Sunny’ Joe Wolverton in St. Louis, and Joe said, ‘You know that tin can you got – it drowns me out – and it’s awful when you’re playing rhythm on it. You’ve got to have a Gibson L-5.’

“I said, ‘How do we do that?’ And Joe said, ‘Let’s go up to Kalamazoo and get one.’

“So we went to Gibson’s factory in Kalamazoo and picked out an L-5. So we both had L-5s, and we had a great sound.”

Very early in his career, Les decided that his life would revolve around the guitar. But there wasn’t much to go on; there weren’t many accomplished guitarists in the country and, obviously, there was no MTV or Hot Licks video. Nonetheless, he set about finding a guitar that would help him find his sound and realize his dream.

“In 1934, we were working at a radio station in Chicago, and I heard through the hillbillies around town that the Larson Brothers were over on Ohio Avenue. They were in a barn in a very undeveloped downtown part of Chicago. There were a lot of barns, which today is hard to believe.

“But I went over the see them, and one brother said, ‘What do you want?’ I told him what I wanted – a guitar with no F-holes. I talked him into it and I tried to explain that I was going to put pickups on it; I was going to make an electronic instrument that’s playable.

“I was way ahead of the game in 1934, because the electric guitar didn’t come out until ’36. It’s amazing how different those days were, how primitive. In those days it was most difficult to break the rules. There was another fellow who made a guitar for me, and he was with National-Dobro. The National people had moved from California to Chicago in the mid ’30s, and they also made me one with no F-holes.”

(LEFT TO RIGHT)  The “Log” was made in 1941 at the Epiphone factory in New York.  It was a 4x4 piece of wood with pickups, winged sides, and an Gibson neck.  Les used the log to pester Gibson for 10 years in an attempt to get a Gibson solid guitar that sounded like a steel guitar.  Les and his #1 “clunker,” used to record “How High The Moon” and all other Les Paul and Mary Ford hits from the late 1940s and early ’50s.  The sheet music cover shows Les holding this guitar.  Les Paul’s #2 clunker was used as a backup for #1.  Number two has a rounded-off pickguard, not the squared pickguard on #1.  Les had told Gibson that he would play his clunkers until Gibson came up with a guitar that sounded better.  Gibson did produce its first solidbody, which did rival the sound of the clunker.  In the 1940s, Gibson offered Les any guitar he wanted including a gold plated L-5, but it’s ironic that the one thing that Les wanted was a great-sounding solidbody, and Gibson refused to give him one.  The #3 clunker, which was occasionally used by Mary Ford.  She is pictured with a sunburst archtop on the cover of the “Mockin’ Bird Hill” sheet music; could there have been a #4 clunker?

(LEFT TO RIGHT) The “Log” was made in 1941 at the Epiphone factory in New York. It was a 4×4 piece of wood with pickups, winged sides, and an Gibson neck. Les used the log to pester Gibson for 10 years in an attempt to get a Gibson solid guitar that sounded like a steel guitar. Les and his #1 “clunker,” used to record “How High The Moon” and all other Les Paul and Mary Ford hits from the late 1940s and early ’50s. The sheet music cover shows Les holding this guitar. Les Paul’s #2 clunker was used as a backup for #1. Number two has a rounded-off pickguard, not the squared pickguard on #1. Les had told Gibson that he would play his clunkers until Gibson came up with a guitar that sounded better. Gibson did produce its first solidbody, which did rival the sound of the clunker. In the 1940s, Gibson offered Les any guitar he wanted including a gold plated L-5, but it’s ironic that the one thing that Les wanted was a great-sounding solidbody, and Gibson refused to give him one. The #3 clunker, which was occasionally used by Mary Ford. She is pictured with a sunburst archtop on the cover of the “Mockin’ Bird Hill” sheet music; could there have been a #4 clunker?

The Log and Clunker
During this time, Les was becoming one of the best guitarists in the country, and he continued to strive for the best guitar sound. In the late ’30s he moved to New York City and found himself in a great position to experiment.

“In 1941, I was close to the Epiphone factory on 13th Street, and I told them, ‘I want to build this log.’ They said, ‘You want to build what?’ And I said, ‘I’ll do it on Sunday, you guys don’t have to be there.’

“And I built it. It took three Sundays or so, and I finally got this ‘log’ built. This guy there helped me, and we got it together. It was just a 4×4 with a pickup and a neck.

“I took it to a tavern in Queens, and I was playing “The Sheik” on it, and the act died. The people looked at me like I was nuts. Then I thought, ‘I’m going back down to Epiphone and put wings on that thing… put some sides on it, and make it look like a guitar, and see if that makes any difference.’

“Geez, they went crazy. So I found out that people hear with their eyes, and that it’s got to look like a guitar. But the sound and everything was there.”

Many guitarists think Les had an early association with Epiphone (the fact he built it at the Epi factory helped further that myth, and his famous “clunkers” are Epiphones – with good reason.

“The log was not the reason I used Epiphones,” he said. “Right after we built the log in 1941, I went back to Chicago. One day I got a call from a guy who said, ‘I work for a bread wrapping company and I got my hand caught in a wrapping machine. I have a guitar and amp I want to give you. It’s an Epiphone.’ I said, ‘I play a Gibson, I don’t play Epiphone.’ But he said, ‘I’ll give it to you.’

“So I said, ‘Well, bring it over.’ So I looked at it and gave him $125. I took it because it had a door in the back, so I could go in and change the pickups, do the electronics, all that junk.

After The Log
“For the ‘clunker,’ I started thinking, ‘I’m going to do more than pickups here. I’m going to change this and that,’ and the guitar became an experiment. Next thing you know, it’s the best damn guitar I’ve got. That became my number one clunker. I had three of them.

“That was a very exciting time because I had this clunker and I’m making records with Bing Crosby [Decca Records' Bing Crosby With The Les Paul Trio and Bing Crosby With Les Paul And His Trio], and Gibson is going nuts. They say, ‘We’ll give you a gold plated L-5… whatever you want.’ I told them, ‘If you can beat this one, okay.’

“The surgery I did on the clunker was severe. And it just so happens I recorded ‘How High The Moon,’ ‘Bye Bye Blues,’ and everything from that period with it.”

And Les kept his word, continuing to use the Epiphone clunker until Gibson presented him with a better-sounding guitar – the prototype solidbody Les Paul Model.
Learning to Record
“Bing and I were recording ‘It’s Been A Long, Long Time’ and some other songs, and afterward Bing said, ‘Where are you going?’

“So we went next door to the Grotto, and we’re eating salami sandwiches and beer at 8 a.m. Bing said, ‘You didn’t seem too enthusiastic about those takes. I said, ‘I’ve got a whole list of things that could have been better.’

Then Bing offered to buy a recording studio for me. We went up Sunset Boulevard, and he said, ‘What about that building over there?’ So I said, ‘No, that’s too big.’ Finally he found a place across from what is now the Hollywood Guitar Center, and he says, ‘That looks perfect.’ I can see the sign – Les Paul’s House of Sound. There, you could teach all the tricks of the trade. We’d have something that would go through the whole country, and it would be so big.’

“I thought about it and said, ‘You know what, Bing? What I really want to do is just play the guitar.’ Bing said, ‘Okay.’ So we went back to the parking lot on Melrose and he drove his way and I drove mine.”

(LEFT) This photo of Rhubarb Red and his original Gibson L-5 hangs on the wall in Les Paul’s home studio. (RIGHT) Inventions (and memories) in Les Paul’s home

(LEFT) This photo of Rhubarb Red and his original Gibson L-5 hangs on the wall in Les Paul’s home studio. (RIGHT) Inventions (and memories) in Les Paul’s home

Still, Les learned everything he could about recording. After passing on Crosby’s offer, he and two buddies decided to board up his garage and make their own studio

“I wanted to learn, exactly, all the tricks of recording. So I built the studio in my back yard and got the word out that I would record anybody – for no fee! I’d have a bass player come over with his trio, and I’d concentrate on making the best-sounding recording. I’d go for the best fidelity, with the acoustics just right, even if it meant taking some carpet out, slanting the walls, changing the room materials, which mics accomplished the best sound from the bass or piano – all the technical things.

“The piano was the very first instrument I did. I put on a piano roll and just let it play for two or three weeks until I found out how to get the best sound.

“I did freebies for months, and finally thought, ‘Now I have her.’ Then I started charging $12 an hour. W.C. Fields made an album that probably cost him $50!”

Rhubarb Red and Mary Lou
While learning the fine points of recording in his own studio, Les also maintained a busy show schedule.

“I had nine shows on NBC radio, called “sustainers,” where I could do anything I wished, and they were all-jazz shows. The NBC program director told me, ‘I’ve got nine more shows and I’m trying to think of something to fill them.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you go country?’ He said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ I said, ‘I started out country. If you want, I’ll change my name to Rhubarb Red and find a group.’ Low and behold, everybody in my jazz group played another instrument. The piano player played the accordion, my guitar player played the violin.

“The group picked things up quickly, and I thought, ‘All I need is a singer.’ So I stepped out of NBC one day, and Gene Autry was walking just ahead of me. I said, ‘Hi, Gene.’ Gene said, ‘Rhubarb, how are you?’ I said, ‘I’m looking for a country girl singer. He said, ‘I have a trio that sings for me. The one in the middle is good looking, has a good ear, and is the best singer I know of.’”

That singer was Colleen Summers, and Les came to find that she was a huge fan of his music. Still, he had a tough time convincing her that he was indeed Les Paul. She eventually accepted his invitation to visit his studio, and he gave her a “country name” – Mary Lou.

“The Show was a lot of fun because there was nothing like it on the radio,” Les said.

The Les Paul Sound
Beyond his reputation as a brilliant guitarist, Les is today known as the father of modern multitrack recording. He spent thousands of hours perfecting many techniques that eventually became industry standards, but not before their many nuances came to make up “the Les Paul sound.”

And it all started because of his mother!

“I was at the Oriental Theater, in Chicago, in 1946, playing with the Andrews Sisters when my mother told me, ‘Lester, I heard you last night on the radio.’ I said, ‘Mom, it couldn’t have been me, I’ve been onstage with the Andrews Sisters. It had to be someone else.’ She said, ‘Well, you ought to stop them.’ I said, ‘How can I stop a guy from playing like me? There’s no law against that, Ma!’ She said, ‘Well you should do something about it. When your mother can’t tell you from someone else, there’s something wrong.’

“So I thought about it, and went to the Andrews Sisters and said, ‘You can keep my trio, but I’m going back to California to lock myself into the studio and develop a new concept.’

“And that’s how my sound happened. It’s different than with straight guitar. It’s what you do with slap-back echo, and reverb, and all the things you have at your command. What you can do with the bass and the speeding up the tracks. All of the creative things you can do to make this sound so different that makes your mother say, ‘That’s Lester.’

“And of course my mom just loved it because it was unusual. And it worked.”

Les’ new sound had a lot to do with his own multilayer recording invention. His first hit with Capitol Records was the wizard-like instrumental “Lover” which became a hit in ’47.

Then in ’48, Les and Mary were in a serious automobile accident. It took Les 18 months to recover, and in that time he came to the conclusion that he needed something to build on… something that would take him beyond being a mere “guitar star.”

(LEFT)  Les Paul with a ’52 Les Paul Model and ’52 Les Paul GA-40 amp, in the room where most of his TV show was taped and recorded.  “We did the commercials mostly in this room and in another studio here, and the rest of the TV show was shot in the house.” (MIDDLE) This is the Gibson logo on the #1 clunker which Les applied because Gibson president Ted McCarty insisted on it.  Les told McCarty that he would continue to play the clunker until Gibson had made the solidbody prototype correctly.  The first prototype presented to Les at the Delaware Water Gap had several things wrong with it. (RIGHT) Les Paul was a top guitarist, engineer, inventor, promoter, and national celebrity by the time this cover photo appeared in 1958.

(LEFT) Les Paul with a ’52 Les Paul Model and ’52 Les Paul GA-40 amp, in the room where most of his TV show was taped and recorded. “We did the commercials mostly in this room and in another studio here, and the rest of the TV show was shot in the house.” (MIDDLE) This is the Gibson logo on the #1 clunker which Les applied because Gibson president Ted McCarty insisted on it. Les told McCarty that he would continue to play the clunker until Gibson had made the solidbody prototype correctly. The first prototype presented to Les at the Delaware Water Gap had several things wrong with it. (RIGHT) Les Paul was a top guitarist, engineer, inventor, promoter, and national celebrity by the time this cover photo appeared in 1958.

Les Paul and Mary Ford
“Colleen (Mary Lou) was working with Gene Autry and his rodeo, and we played a lot of the same cities at the same time. When I was at the Paramount, they’d be playing Madison Square Garden. We’d meet and I’d say, ‘I’ve got to find something to put in my trio… there should be a vocal.’ But I never thought about her, even though we were hanging out together.”

As a personal relationship began to develop between Les and Colleen, he began to formulate plans for a new group that included her, but her show biz name would be Mary (nee Mary Lou) and Ford, which he picked out of the phone book, based on the famous automobile family name.

“We started playing in Milwaukee,” he said. “I still lived in L.A. but we went to Milwaukee to open a tavern for my brother-in-law.”

Needing more than one place to play, Les started driving down Milwaukee Avenue. He found a place with a marquee that advertised live music.

“I approached the owner and said, ‘I’d like to play in your club.’ He said, ‘I’ve lost a lot of money on everything I’ve tried.’ Then I said, ‘We’ll play for nothing,’ and he said, ‘Come on in!’

“So we went in, and three months later they were lined up around the block. I said, ‘Mary, I think this thing is going to work.’

“But we had to leave because I’d made arrangements to open the Blue Note in Chicago for Dave Garroway. So we played, and on the second night, the owner called [our agent] in New York and said, ‘We’ve got the world’s worst trio in here. I want to get them out and get somebody in here that’s good.’ He told them, ‘The guitarist talks into his shoe, she’s in a gingham gown, and they don’t finish a song. Sometimes he’s funny, but it sure doesn’t fit down here. And I don’t want any cowboy hats in here!’

“Well, he didn’t know that the cowboy hats were Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. They had never had that in the Blue Note; it was a bad sign to see a jazz joint with cowboy hats.

“But that second night we continued doing what we were doing, and there were a lot of reporters with pencils in the audience, going like mad. The next day, the owner said, ‘Have you read the reviews? All those guys you were ribbing with the pencils? Well, just keep doing what you’re doing.’

“And that’s the way it started. Then the Miller Brewing people said, ‘Les, it’s time for you two to get married.’ And we were happily married. We were very close to Fred Miller and all those people then. Milwaukee was our home. So they fixed up the whole nightclub, and got us married right there.

“Mary was a tremendously talented person, and it was a great combination.”

Commercial Appeal
Aside from their rising status as a live and recording act, Les and Mary were one of the first successful artist-based radio advertisers.

“We were at the Oriental Theater in 1951, and a fellow from Rheingold Beer approached me. He said, ‘I’m here to talk to you about making a commercial. We’re willing to pay you good money.’ I was my own manager and I said, ‘That sounds good. How much time do you want?’ He said, ‘Thirty seconds.’ I said, ‘When do you need it?’ He said, ‘If we can do it, I’ll produce it right here.’

“Mary and I were doing a broadcast once a week for our radio show (“Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home”). So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. Go downstairs and watch today’s newsreel, and give me a chance to think about it.’

“So he goes down, and when he comes back I hand him a reel that has 30 seconds of tape. I said, ‘I thought about it, and I did your commercial.’ He said, ‘You did the commercial!?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’

“I wrote the script, I wrote the song, I did the whole damn thing, and I got it on a reel. I handed it to him and said, ‘Now you give me the money and we’ve got a deal.’ He said, ‘I haven’t heard it yet.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll play it for you.’ And I did and he flipped out and said, ‘They’re going to go crazy for this. But I’m supposed to be the producer and the director, and it’s supposed to be my idea. I’m going back to New York, so will you please not tell anybody?’ I said, ‘Nah, you produced it, you directed it, and you made it.’ And he went back and the people at Rheingold Beer loved it, and everything was very successful.

“I didn’t want anybody to know just what it was that I was doing, because it was highly unusual. This was sound on sound and nobody else had that. I didn’t want to disclose how I was doing all of this stuff.

“I was using it on my radio show, and that’s when we came up with the term the ‘Les Paulverizer’ and all that stuff. I’d say by throwing these switches I could get all these sounds. And from that point on, McDonald would come out and say ‘Hey Les, I have another one for you. I’ll leave it and get lost.’

Rheingold Beer was just for the New York area, and it was a very popular beer, so it was the most aggressive advertiser, and the most important commercial we ever made in our life. With all the Listerine ads and the Robert Hall ads, Rheingold was the one that concentrated more on advertising their product.

“How High the Moon”  This was one of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s most innovative hits.  It marked the introduction of the advanced Paulverizer.  It was number one for nine weeks and sold 1.5 million copies. “Smoke Rings”  This was an example of the type of proven hit that Les preferred to record because audiences and radio listeners already knew the song. “Bye Bye Blues”  This was the record Les and Mary were working on at the Delaware Water Gap in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, when Ted McCarty brought over the first prototype solidbody. “Mockin’ Bird Hill”  An early Les and Mary hit that helped Les convince Capitol Records to release the Paulverized “How High The Moon.”  Capital was initially reluctant to release a song that was so progressive, because it  might not be a hit.  “Tennessee Waltz” and “Mockin’ Bird Hill” convinced Capitol that Les knew what he was doing. “Johnny is the Boy For Me”  Les Paul: “A photographer wanted to take a picture of us in the studio for the newspaper, and he told me it was going to be involved.  At first Mary did not want to spend the time to do that.  But the photographer said, ‘I want to have you both sitting on wooden horses and I’m going to have a guitar in there and I’m going to have you sitting on a guitar.’  And I said, ‘Mary, that sounds interesting!’  And little did we know, it was going to be one of the most famous pictures.”  The Les Paul guitar shown has received the typical Les Paul modifications.  Notice the standard L-4 type tailpiece and the multi-pole modified neck pickup.  This cover will fetch more in the collector’s market because of the unusual photograph.  “Josephine”  Les Paul: “It’s a different song.  It has 32-bars and it’s a mess, but it’s interesting.  It’s hard for a lot of guitar players, or anybody, to play because it goes so many different places.  It was written by Wayne King, a friend of mine, but happened to become a very popular song – and Wayne’s theme song.”

“How High the Moon” This was one of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s most innovative hits. It marked the introduction of the advanced Paulverizer. It was number one for nine weeks and sold 1.5 million copies. “Smoke Rings” This was an example of the type of proven hit that Les preferred to record because audiences and radio listeners already knew the song. “Bye Bye Blues” This was the record Les and Mary were working on at the Delaware Water Gap in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, when Ted McCarty brought over the first prototype solidbody. “Mockin’ Bird Hill” An early Les and Mary hit that helped Les convince Capitol Records to release the Paulverized “How High The Moon.” Capital was initially reluctant to release a song that was so progressive, because it might not be a hit. “Tennessee Waltz” and “Mockin’ Bird Hill” convinced Capitol that Les knew what he was doing. “Johnny is the Boy For Me” Les Paul: “A photographer wanted to take a picture of us in the studio for the newspaper, and he told me it was going to be involved. At first Mary did not want to spend the time to do that. But the photographer said, ‘I want to have you both sitting on wooden horses and I’m going to have a guitar in there and I’m going to have you sitting on a guitar.’ And I said, ‘Mary, that sounds interesting!’ And little did we know, it was going to be one of the most famous pictures.” The Les Paul guitar shown has received the typical Les Paul modifications. Notice the standard L-4 type tailpiece and the multi-pole modified neck pickup. This cover will fetch more in the collector’s market because of the unusual photograph. “Josephine” Les Paul: “It’s a different song. It has 32-bars and it’s a mess, but it’s interesting. It’s hard for a lot of guitar players, or anybody, to play because it goes so many different places. It was written by Wayne King, a friend of mine, but happened to become a very popular song – and Wayne’s theme song.”

“If you looked at the New York Times you’d see maybe six full pages, one right after the other, of nothing but Les Paul and Mary Ford. We were sitting at a table eating and we’d have our beer in front of us, and the next picture is something entirely different. And we’d do 30-second radio commercials, ‘Rheingold is my beer – my beer.’ They were terribly popular.

“But the critics were on our backs something awful. We were the very first musicians to advertise a product. So we were criticized by Billboard and Downbeat, because musicians advertising a product was considered prostitution. But today, musicians and artists fight to get to advertise a product.

“It came to the point where Capitol Records sided with the critics, and for the most unusual reason; they said the ads were hurting the sales of records. We made the commercials so good that in many cases they were better than the record (laughs).

“Say our record was ‘The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,’ which is a very good record. But if just ahead of it was something that was 30 seconds long and very good, too, then Capitol thought that was a problem. It was Capitol’s point of view that many of the disk jockeys might have thought, ‘Why play Les Paul and Mary Ford again, when we just heard them on a commercial?’ So Capitol thought that the ads hurt the airplay of the records.

“So we had a meeting, and I made one of the most stupid mistakes I ever made. I said, ‘Well, why don’t we vote on it?’ And by one vote, I lost, and we cancelled the commercials.

“Now I look back and see how wrong I was. Those commercials were the start of the whole thing. And it didn’t hurt the records. And the advertising, besides being on radio, was in the newspapers, and on [billboards].”

Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home
That misstep was not the end of the line for Les’ and Mary’s advertising-related exposure. Next came their popular Listerine-sponsored TV program.

They purchased a home near Listerine’s headquarters in upstate New Jersey, and with the help of the company, it was made into a world-class recording and TV studio.

This time, however, Les and Mary would not directly advertise the product. The program was called “Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home,” and the two would act out a skit, perform a song, then go to commercial break, which was generally a Listerine mouthwash ad – but there were other products. After the break, the show would resume with a second song, often an instrumental by Les using his Paulverizer.

Most of the episodes had to do with everyday life. They might feature Les in a chef’s hat at a backyard BBQ, talking about his secret recipes. Another episode had Mary wondering why the refrigerator wasn’t working, only to have Les discover that it was unplugged. There is nothing unusual about a man wandering around a kitchen with a black Gibson Les Paul Custom, right?

Only once in our 28-plus years has Vintage Guitar printed a double cover and that was to honor Les Paul. Here are the two covers from the November 2002 issue, which contained this interview.

Only once in our 28-plus years has Vintage Guitar printed a double cover and that was to honor Les Paul. Here are the two covers from the November 2002 issue, which contained this interview.

Another episode had Mary sitting at the kitchen table playing a card game.

“I remember the first show to come out of our home studio,” Les said. “The director had me with a straw hat, a cane, and a striped shirt, tap dancing (laughs). So I said, ‘Somehow, I think we’re going the wrong direction with this act. Get rid of that director and get another guy.’ So they got another guy, and he that came up with the chef’s hat.

“So we worked it out, but it took a long time because we were pioneering, and those were the early days of TV.

“On a typical day, Mary would be upstairs in her dressing room right above us [in his home]. Mary would be trying on her gowns and putting on her makeup, and I’d be eating breakfast. The crew would come down and say, ‘Here’s the schedule.’ They’d hand me the script, so I’d get an idea of what was going to happen. So there are two songs down on the script, let’s say ‘How High The Moon’ and another song I had to choose.

“The script told me how much time I had, and while I’d eat, I’d be thinking, ‘One chorus at that tempo will be that.’ So I’d say to the setup man, ‘Set up some cocktail drums and my black guitar.’ So I walk to that room right over there (points to the second floor glass control room overlooking the main studio) and I lay down 37 seconds of drums, or it might be something else like a second guitar part. Then I may put down a melody for 37 seconds. The tempo is already there – it’s going to be 32 bars, or 12 bars, whatever. I’d already figured out that I’m going to do two choruses or something I make up right there.

“So in 20 minutes I’ve got the song. But Mary hadn’t heard it. She’s still upstairs putting her clothes on. So the song goes immediately to acetate disk, which is placed in the living room or the studio. Then we were ready for the script.

“The script might have Mary saying, ‘While I’m making a sandwich, will you play “Who Broke The Lock?”‘ And they drop the needle on the record that I only heard when I made it (laughs). And there it is – it is as much a surprise to everybody as it is to me. And we get through that and we have maybe four words and we go into a commercial. And that’s the way we had to do the shows. So there were so many surprises.

“So, every day I’d come down to breakfast and a guy would shove something at me. I’d say, ‘What am I going to do this time…?’ So after we’d finish the number, they’d cut to commercial, come back, and Mary would say, ‘Well that was “Doin’ The Town” or “Wait And See” or “Pardon Me, Baby,”‘ or whatever it was. And the show was not dubbed. They’d just sit there with cameras running. The songs we recorded for the radio and TV shows were in most cases picked by me because they were made very popular by someone else. They were standards, and there’s nothing like a proven hit song.

“‘Vaya Con Dios’ was written by a dear friend of mine. That’s the one I think of when it comes to Les Paul and Mary Ford, because it sold so many millions. I think of it every time I go to the bank (laughs). Mary and I admired the writer, and we admired the song, and that’s why we used it. The writer never did live long enough to hear the song. I was so sold on ‘Vaya Con Dios’ and Capitol was so against it that they did not want to put it out. So I had a hell of a time convincing Capitol that it was a hit.”

“Vaya Con Dios” was Les Paul and Mary Ford’s biggest hit, being number one for 11 weeks in ’53. “How High The Moon” was number one for nine weeks in ’51, and was the groundbreaker for the “Paulverized” sound.

Les and Leo
One of the many people who came to Les’ Hollywood backyard/home studio in the ’40s was Leo Fender.

“Leo loved country music, and I was recording Spade Cooley’s guys. So Leo was in my backyard, and Paul Bigsby, and they’re saying, ‘This guy has some stuff going here.’

“Leo and I spent many hours talking. He was interested in me going with him, starting things. He wanted to try new sounds. Where else could Leo hear a better thing than in an orchestra being recorded with his amplifier? Where else is Leo going to find a better place to be where there is an electronic engineer, a person that knows, a person that plays the instrument? And as you know, Leo was not around jazz players at all. He was strictly in a country world. And the country world was prominent in my backyard.

“So Leo and I would sit and talk about sound. And it came to what sound do we like best? The best we agreed upon was the sound that came out of the steel guitar. That was a sound that you could never get out of a straight guitar. A straight guitar always sounded like a straight guitar – limping, dragging its foot. And we finally got to the point of two pickups, where to place them, and what to do with them.

“That was where Leo and I had a different choice. I wanted a front pickup to sound with all the characteristics of a back pickup, but I didn’t want it to be a back pickup. And Leo wanted to take a back pickup and make it sound something like a front pickup. So we were on opposite ends. And through our whole careers, it stayed that way.

“Anyway, Leo was interested in me going with him. The reason I didn’t was that there was only one company at the time – Gibson. So why do I want to start with someone from scratch? So I told Leo, ‘I don’t know if this is the way I want to go.’

Convincing Gibson
Les had already experimented with many ideas for a solidbody electric guitar, including the famous “log.” He approached Gibson’s Guy Hart beginning in 1941 with the idea, and for 10 years tried to convince the company it was good.

After Fender approached Les, he tried Gibson again.

“I called and said, ‘There’s a guy out here who wants me to go with him, and I think that would be a mistake. You should consider my idea a little more.’”

But Gibson wasn’t ready. On one hand, it wanted to give Les anything he wanted – like a gold plated L-5. But on the other hand, it wouldn’t give him the only thing he really wanted – a solidbody guitar that sounded like a steel guitar with a bridge-mounted pickup.

Of course, World War II turned everything around. From 1941 through ’45, few men worked at Gibson, and production was primarily war-related. In ’45, Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI), run by M.H. Berlin, bought Gibson. The latest rage was the cutaway archtop acoustic and cutaway acoustic/electric archtop, and Gibson was trying to figure out (and keep up with) Les Paul’s large body acoustic/electric archtop Epiphone, not some solidbody dream guitar. But with Berlin on board, things began to change at Gibson.

“Mr. Berlin was probably the most honest, comfortable person I’ve ever dealt with. I met him in 1931, when he was selling Martin guitars in his music store across the street from Lyon and Healy, on Wabash.

“When he became chairman of CMI, we’d talk. So he was aware of my career. He told me, many years later, ‘When you came to Gibson with that contraption of yours (the log), we called you the character with the broomstick with the pickups on it.’ And he said, ‘Gibson laughed at you for 10 years.’ Then he said, ‘Well, Gibson was wrong.’”

The First Gibson Solidbody
In the early ’50s, Gibson began to seriously consider a solidbody guitar. Les had warned them of Leo Fender, and most people credit Fender’s bolt-neck, slab-body Esquire/Telecaster with pushing Gibson into the solidbody market.

But at Gibson, Berlin was discussing Les’ ideas with company president Ted McCarty. When Les briefed Berlin, there were two other people in the room, but McCarty was’t one of them.

McCarty’s main job was to fill instrument orders, but he also wanted to increase production at the Kalamazoo factory. McCarty purchased an early Fender solidbody and tore it apart. He worked from one angle, Les worked from another angle, and Berlin was in the middle, taking input from both.

“Everything about the looks of the first guitar was discussed with Mr. Berlin and myself,” he said. “And when we were finished he said, ‘What color are we going to make it?’ Without really thinking, because it never entered my mind that anybody would ask, I said, ‘Gold,’ and there were two other people in the room, another manager and Mr. Berlin’s right-hand man, Mark Carlucci. They damn near died! One guy said, ‘It’s a terrible color to work with.’ But M.H said, ‘Gold it is.’

“Then they said, ‘What about the other guitar?’ I said, ‘Black.’ They asked why, and I said, ‘I like to see the player’s hands move…’ Today, those are two great colors. Sometimes your first thought is the right one!

“Mr. Berlin and I talked about maple and mahogany bodies, and the Gibson people got them backward; the black guitar, which was the most expensive, was all mahogany, and the cheap guitar, with the maple top, cost the most to make.

“When I got my hands on the prototype, I found quite a few errors. I said, ‘Why don’t you do the same with every one of them. Just make them all with a maple top and mahogany on the sides?’ We found out over time that there was not that much difference between the maple and mahogany top.”

Patentently Controversial
Development of the Les Paul Model was very much a team effort, with Berlin calling the shots. But the patent process was assigned to McCarty; Gibson’s guitar patents were handled in the Kalamazoo offices.

McCarty generally let the engineer most responsible for a product be listed as the patent holder. An example is the 1955 Gibson humbucking pickup patented by Seth Lover.

But in 1952 and ’53, a lot was going on. In one span, three similar patents were filed in a six-month period – the Tune-O-Matic Bridge patent was filed on July 5, 1952 in the name of Ted McCarty, the Les Paul trapeze bridge patent was filed four days later in the name of Lester W. Polfus (Les Paul), and the patent for the stop-tail Les Paul guitar (entitled “Stringed Musical Instrument Of The Guitar Type And Combined Bridge And Tailpiece Therefore”) was filed January 2l, 1953 in McCarty’s name.

The Les Paul Guitar
An important day for Les was the day Ted McCarty reached the Delaware Water Gap (the eastern Pennsylvania mountains that border the Delaware River). That was the night that the first Gibson prototype was named the Les Paul guitar.

“The contract was signed, and Ted turned around and asked me, ‘What are we going to call this thing?’ I said, ‘Call it a Les Paul guitar.’ He said, ‘Will you put that in writing.’ I did! So sometimes I do the right thing (laughs).”

In one pen stroke, many of the dreams Les Paul had worked were achieved.

“We signed the agreement and Ted said, ‘What are we going to do with that clunker?’ I said, ‘Play it until you make that first solidbody right.’ Ted said, ‘Les you can’t walk out on the stage with an Epiphone name on your guitar.’ I said, ‘Okay. Send me some Gibson logos and I’ll put one on it.’ And that’s why you look up at the clunker and see Gibson.”

Ted McCarty had always been concerned with the clunker.

“Ted would pace the floor and say, ‘That’s the damndess sound I’ve ever heard. We’ve got to have it.’ And I said, ‘I’ll give you most of it, but I won’t give you all of it. I’ll work with you on that Les Paul guitar and make it the finest that can be made.’ And that’s what we did.”

Summary
Les Paul did so many things right; he found his passion at an early age, and he had natural rhythm and musical ability. He continually improved until he found his sound. He knew he needed to be well-rounded, not only to be a guitarist, but to be an engineer, inventor, promoter, and celebrity. And he worked tirelessly all the while.


This article originally appeared in VG‘s November 2002 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.


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