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Les Paul's Journey and the History of American Popular Music

06/09/2015 02:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

American guitarist Les Paul would have turned 100 years old this week. Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915, Paul became one of the most important figures in popular music during the middle decades of the twentieth century. As part of a pop duo with Mary Ford, he enjoyed a string of hit singles in the first half of the 1950s that were the envy of the industry -- songs such as "How High the Moon," "Mockingbird Hill," and "Vaya Con Dios." Paul is widely credited with playing a crucial role in the development of multi-track recording as well as in the introduction of the electric guitar. He passed away in 2009 at age 94.

As impressive and significant as Paul's music, performing, and technical innovations were, his career path is perhaps even more interesting in understanding the history of American pop in the twentieth century. His journey parallels the development of American music and entertainment in fascinating ways.

Les Paul and Mary Ford, "How High the Moon" (1951).

Les Paul got his first professional break playing country music. Heading to Chicago in 1934 (at the age of 19), Paul ended up performing on the radio under the name Rhubarb Red. WLS in Chicago was home to the National Barn Dance, one of the premiere radio shows of the time; along with the Grand Ole Opry, the program showcased country music for a national audience. Les first met Jim Atkins at a Barn Dance broadcast and Atkins (older half-brother to Chet) would subsequently join Les's jazz trio. Les was happy to make the money that came with being a country entertainer, but his real love was jazz. During the time Les was in Chicago, he honed his chops in the city's jazz clubs in the company of figures such as Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, and Roy Eldridge. He would sometimes have to duck out of jazz gigs to do his radio performances. He lived in two worlds: jazz developed his musical abilities, and country increased his professional and entrepreneurial skills.

In 1938, Les made a commitment to jazz and moved to New York. He would return to his Rhubarb Red act at various points, and the vaudeville elements of country performing would stick with him throughout his career. (In fact, Les and Jim defrayed the costs of moving by joining the Barn Dance tour, which eventually rolled into New York.) Through dogged persistence, Les got his trio a gig with Fred Waring, who also had a radio show. As he had done in Chicago, Les headed to the jazz clubs when he wasn't working, meeting and playing with figures such as Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Christian. Again, Les was at the center of one of the country's most vibrant music scenes.

The Les Paul Trio, "Blue Skies," recorded in 1946.

Les's next big move was to Hollywood, and by 1943 he headed west (after a short stint back in Chicago). He liked to say that his goal was to perform with Bing Crosby, one the most popular singers of his era. Les soon got his new trio working regularly at NBC but by the end of year he was drafted. He ended up staying in Los Angeles to perform and produce radio programming for the Armed Forces Radio Service, a job that spread his name and music to soldiers all over the world. Discharged in 1944, Paul contrived an "accidental" musical meeting with Crosby, who had proven to be tough to corner. Les booked Bing's favorite rehearsal space at Bing's usual time and the singer walked into the room as the group was playing. Les was once again on a radio show, but this time it was the Crosby's Kraft Radio Hall -- the biggest show in radio.

As the war ended, Les enjoyed his first hit record: "It's Been a Long, Long Time" went to number one on the U.S. charts and featured Paul in a duet with Crosby, with an extended guitar solo thrown in. Les and his trio then began working with the Andrews Sisters, once again producing a hit single, "Rumors are Flying." While on the road with the Andrews Sisters, Les's mother heard someone she thought was Les playing on a Chicago radio show. It turned out that the guitarist was George Barnes, and the misidentification by Paul's biggest fan got him thinking he needed to develop a sound that was so individual as to be uncopyable.

Bing Crosby and Les Paul, "It's Been a Long, Long Time" (1945).

Les had always been a tinkerer and inventor. All along he had been experimenting with radios and electronics, as well as with guitars. The challenge of finding his distinctive sound sent him into his garage studio, where he developed an approach to recording that would soon be dubbed the "New Sound." This new approach was focused on a process of recording layers of music -- overdubbing -- to create recordings that soon featured only Les's guitar. Paul achieved this by recording a track onto a disk-cutter, then playing that track back while recording a new track onto a second machine. Working in this way with two disk recorders, he also added speed effects (achieved by recording at half speed and then playing back at full speed) and some distinctive echo. The resulting tracks sounded like nothing before them. Les's New Sound produced instrumental several hits, including "Brazil," "Lover," "What Is This Thing Called Love," and "Nola."

Les Paul's "New Sound": "Lover" from 1948.

In the late 1940s, radio was on the wane and television was on the rise, and most of the action in the TV business was in New York. By 1950, Les Paul was back in New York, though he returned to town with a new act. Les recruited Mary Ford from the Los Angeles country scene (she had been singing for Gene Autry), initially because he wanted a female singer as part of his revived Rhubarb Red act. But Mary would soon become much more than that; she was an accomplished rhythm guitarist, had a fantastic voice, and possessed an exceptional gift for vocal harmonization. Les also had a new recording device -- a special Ampex tape deck that had been a gift from Bing. Les had ingeniously modified it to allow for overdubbing. The fidelity on the new unit was much improved from his previous system, and the tape set-up was portable. Many of the subsequent sessions for Les Ford and Mary Ford records would be done in hotels while on the road.

Les Paul has fun demonstrating his recording techniques in 1953.

As with his previous locations -- Chicago of the 1930s, pre-World War II New York, and '40s Hollywood -- New York of the early 1950s was the center of action in popular music and entertainment. In the days before television migrated to the west coast, New York was the place to be and Les Paul was there. His instincts and ambition always seemed to lead him to where big things were happening. With a string of hit singles in the first half of the '50s, plus a radio show and later a series of television episodes, Les Paul was one of the top figures in American popular music. This is where he made his most lasting mark in history. And in many ways, following Les Paul's career migration through the 1930s, '40s, and '50s is one method of tracing the development of American popular culture during those days.

One key to Les Paul's success was that he had a keen sense of how to combine things to create something distinctive. He was not the first person to overdub sound; but he found a way to do it with such remarkably increased fidelity that he baffled the experts. He was not the first person to play an electric guitar, though he was among the first to develop a solid-body electric guitar. Les's use of the electric guitar -- almost always his own hot-rodded instruments -- did much to popularize it. His endorsement agreement with Gibson guitars produced the Les Paul model; it is sometimes touted as the biggest endorsement deal in the history of electric guitars. Many players who play these guitars do not even know that Les Paul was a real guy: for decades now, the guitar has been more widely known than the man.

Even the Les Paul and Mary Ford duo can be seen as a combination of previous elements. Take the pop appeal of Bing Crosby, the vocal stylings of the Andrews Sisters, and arranging practices of Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians (plus a heavy dose of big band), add to it the New Sound of Les's recordings and the husband-and-wife vaudeville charm of George Burns and Gracie Allen (with whom Les had worked), and you have many of the key components to what made Les Paul and Mary Ford so successful. As with his inventing and tinkering, Les took the parts he had at hand and creatively crafted them into something distinctive and astonishing--and something very American.

Further Reading

Robb Lawrence, The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy, 1915-1963 (Hal Leonard, 2008).
Les Paul and Michael Cochran, Les Paul: In His Own Words (Gemstone, 2009).
Mary Alice Shaughnessy, Les Paul, An American Original (William Morrow, 1993).