Les Paul passed away on the 13th of August from complications of severe pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York, he was surrounded by family and loved ones. The family would like to express their heartfelt thanks for the thoughts and prayers from his dear friends and fans. Les Paul was 94.
One of the foremost influences on 20th century sound and responsible for the world’s most famous guitar, the Les Paul model, Les Paul’s prestigious career in music and invention spans from the 1930s to the present. Though he’s indisputably one of America’s most popular, influential, and accomplished electric guitarists, Les Paul is best known as an early innovator in the development of the solid body guitar. His groundbreaking design would become the template for Gibson’s best-selling electric, the Les Paul model, introduced in 1952. Today, countless musical legends still consider Paul’s iconic guitar unmatched in sound and prowess. Among Paul’s most enduring contributions are those in the technological realm, including ingenious developments in multi-track recording, guitar effects, and the mechanics of sound in general.
Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915, Les Paul was already performing publicly as a honky-tonk guitarist by the age of 13. So clear was his calling that Paul dropped out of high school at 17 to play in Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis. As Paul’s mentor, Wolverton was the one to christen him with the stage name “Rhubarb Red,” a moniker that would follow him to Chicago in 1934. There, Paul became a bonafide radio star, known as both hillbilly picker Rhubarb Red and Django Reinhardt-informed jazz guitarist Les Paul. His first recordings were done in 1936 on an acoustic—alone as Rhubarb Red, as well as backing blues singer Georgia White. The next year he formed his first trio, but by 1938 he’d moved to New York to begin his tenure on national radio with one of the more popular dance orchestras in the country, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians.
Tinkering with electronics and guitar amplification since his youth, Les Paul began constructing his own electric guitar in the late ’30s. Unhappy with the first generation of commercially available hollowbodies because of their thin tone, lack of sustain, and feedback problems, Paul opted to build an entirely new structure. “I was interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go,” he has said. “I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it. What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound.” With the good graces of Epiphone president Epi Stathopoulo, Paul used the Epiphone plant and machinery in 1941 to bring his vision to fruition. He affectionately dubbed the guitar “The Log.”
Les Paul’s tireless experiments sometimes proved to be dangerous, and he nearly electrocuted himself in 1940 during a session in the cellar of his Queens apartment. During the next two years of rehabilitation, Les earned his living producing radio music. Forced to put the Pennsylvanians and the rest of his career on hold, Les Paul moved to Hollywood. During World War II, he was drafted into the Army but permitted to stay in California, where he became a regular player for Armed Forces Radio Service. By 1943 he had assembled a trio that regularly performed live, on the radio, and on V-Discs. In 1944 he entered the jazz spotlight—thanks to his dazzling work filling in for Oscar Moore alongside Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, and other superstars —at the first of the prestigious Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.
By his mid-thirties, Paul had successfully combined Reinhardt-inspired jazz playing and the western swing and twang of his Rhubarb Red persona into one distinctive, electrifying style. In the Les Paul Trio he translated the dizzying runs and unusual harmonies found on Jazz at the Philharmonic into a slower, subtler, more commercial approach. His novelty instrumentals were tighter, brasher, and punctuated with effects. Overall, the trademark Les Paul sound was razor-sharp, clean-shaven, and divinely smooth.
As small combos eclipsed big bands toward the end of World War II, Les Paul Trio’s popularity grew. They cut records for Decca both alone and behind the likes of Helen Forrest, the Andrews Sisters, the Delta Rhythm Boys, Dick Hayes, and, most notably, Bing Crosby. Since 1945, when the crooner brought them into the studio to back him on a few numbers, the Trio had become regular guests on Crosby’s hit radio show. The highlight of the session was Paul’s first No. 1 hit and million-seller, the gorgeous “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”