By Mark Smotroff
He racked up no less than 37 Top 40 hits, most with his wife, Mary Ford, during a 10-year run from 1948 to 1959. He sold millions of records internationally and hosted radio and TV programs. He won awards and holds a place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Starting in 1948, Paul and Ford influenced music-makers from Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters to rockers like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page with a vocal jazz-pop sound that set the standard for pre-rock radio. Their recordings remain a benchmark of innovation.
One-man band and inventor
Lester William Polfus was born June 19, 1915, in Waukesha, Wis. His first exposures to music were country, western and hillbilly blues. He learned to play the banjo and harmonica as a child. Soon he picked up the guitar, his first a $5 Sears model complete with EZ-Method instruction book.
Polfus also loved to tinker. By age 12, he had built a primitive disc-recording machine by modifying a crank-driven Victrola. He experimented with composition and recording by punching extra holes in his mother’s player-piano reels to see what would happen. He started performing at age 13, playing what he called hillbilly music for businessmen at lunchtime sessions. He became a local favorite, strumming banjo, pounding a kick drum, singing and blowing harmonica. He built a rack for his harmonica that would let him play simultaneously with his guitar — the same design later used by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
To ensure he’d be heard above noisy crowds, he amplified his guitar using parts from a Victrola and built a portable public-address system in an old suitcase. By 14, he began performing as Red Hot Red, building on his childhood nickname, based on his hair color. Soon he was appearing on local radio station WTMJ. He’d already make his first record-cutting lathe out of an old Cadillac flywheel. “The first thing recorded on it was me as Red Hot Red singing ‘Don’t Send My Boy To Prison’ on WTMJ,” Paul recalled. “My mother recorded it for me off the air. I still have that disc, too!”
Red Hot Red got his first break when Sunny Joe Wolverton, a regional country star, caught Red’s act. Red became the highest-paid member of Wolverton’s band, earning $9 a night. The following summer, the two formed a duo billed as Sunny Joe and Rhubarb Red. They toured the Midwest, ultimately landing in Chicago in the early ’30s. They also made their first recordings, cutting 111 songs on transcription discs for a company headed by Jack Kapp. The sides have long since been lost.
The duo split after playing the 1933 World’s Fair. Red stayed in Chicago and ultimately became a local radio personality. He became fascinated with jazz and started a second musical career, playing jazz as Les Paul, while Rhubarb Red released his first commercial sides (“Just Because”/”Deep Elm’s Blues Pts. 1 & 2”) for a label owned by Montgomery Ward. While Rhubarb Red’s records and guitar shows were successful, Paul retired the name in favor of jazz.
Paul formed his first jazz trio in 1933 with Jimmy Atkins (Chet’s older brother) on guitar and Ernie Newton on bass. He’d developed a solid reputation jamming with the greats of the day, including Art Tatum and Louis Armstrong. In the late ’30s, making it big meant going to New York or Los Angeles, and a flip of the coin sent the trio to Manhattan, where Paul had assured his partners of hot contacts with big-band star Paul Whiteman.
Really, Paul had no contacts — just chutzpah, his music and some terrific luck! Paul was thrown out of the big-band leader’s office and into the path of the Pennsylvanians’ boss, Fred Waring, who was waiting for an elevator. The trio jammed for Waring, and by the time the elevator arrived, Waring was sold. As Paul once said, “That put us on the air coast-to-coast, and I received more letters than Waring telling me to stop playing that electric guitar!”
The trio stayed with Waring until 1941, then headed to California to pursue work with Bing Crosby. Paul made it to Los Angeles just in time to be drafted into the Army in 1942, which proved to be another big break. He was assigned to Maj. Meredith Willson’s orchestra to entertain the troops on the Armed Forces Radio Services. It put him in almost daily contact with a who’s who of the entertainment world at the time: Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith. Paul served for about a year before entering the world of recording, joining Crosby and working as an NBC staff musician.
In 1944, he was asked to appear in Norman Granz’ first Jazz at the Philharmonic session, a now-legendary session that matched Paul with Nat King Cole, among others (Verve VE2-2504). Through the mid-’40s, Paul and his trio appeared on several of Crosby’s hit records, including Paul’s semi-signature tune “It’s Been A Long Time” (Decca L3890A). From 1944 to 1945 he played almost exclusively on the road with The Andrews Sisters. But despite critical and professional success, Paul was still restless — he needed an outlet for his passion for inventing.
Tinkering in the garage
Paul experimented with ideas for multiple recordings as early as 1934. In 1945, Crosby encouraged Paul to build his own studio to continue pursuing his ideas.
Built with help from friends and fellow inventors Lloyd Rich, Vern Carson and Art Partridge, Paul sealed off and soundproofed the garage of his Hollywood bungalo. It cost $415 to make and was state-of-the-art for the time. Paul recorded many stars there, including The Andrews Sisters, Andy Williams and even W.C. Fields (his only recordings).
These years proved to be a pivotal emotional time for Paul, as well. He and the trio had been searching for a singer to round out a hillbilly side project. Les happened to bump into Gene Autry, one of his childhood idols, in the streets of Hollywood, and Autry recommended a young woman named Colleen Summers (who would eventually become Mary Ford).
When Summers arrived at Paul’s home and asked the man mowing the lawn how to find the studio, the last thing she expected to learn was that the gardener was Les Paul himself! Paul recalled the meeting: “I said, ‘Go down the driveway and you’ll run right into the garage. Just holler and they’ll lift you up through the window.’ We’d sealed the door. She started singing with [the trio] and then said, ‘Where’s Les?’ I climbed in and she said, ‘Well, I see the gardener, but where’s Les?’”
Paul had to play some guitar licks to convince her. Summers passed the audition. After a few hillbilly gigs, with Colleen renamed Mary Lou, the two became inseparable. But they didn’t record together again until 1949.
Paul’s mother, Evelyn, inspired him to take his ideas for multiple recordings to the next stage while the trio was on the road with The Andrews Sisters in 1946.
“She told me she’d heard me playing on the radio,” Paul said. “‘You sounded great,’ she said. I told her, ‘But Ma, I’m doing seven shows a day with The Andrews Sisters — you must have heard somebody else.’ She told me, ‘Well, whoever it was, he was playing just like you!’ ”
Paul couldn’t patent his playing style or stop anyone from trying to sound like him, but this spurred him to create a sound so unique and proprietary that nobody could copy it. He started with his guitar. His earlier experiments with solid-body electric guitars, modeled after the bulky acoustic guitars of the day, had proved too heavy to use outside of the studio. Paul’s legendary “Log,” the first solid-body guitar, was made from a 4-by-4-inch wooden slab. Despite its success as a recording instrument, Gibson guitars turned down the concept.
Undaunted, Paul turned to fine-tuning his multiple-layered recording techniques, turning to pop music rather than jazz for his new sound. After more than two years of research and development, Paul emerged from his studio with “Lover” and 21 more sides recorded direct-to-disc using his multi-layered technique and landed one of the first recording contracts with Capitol Records.
A near-fatal car accident sparked the idea that changed the face of guitar playing. Stuck in the hospital with a shattered right arm — set in guitar-playing position, at Paul’s insistence — he designed a thin guitar that would allow him to play and continue recording while flat on his back. Paul ultimately finished several records that way.
After recuperating, Paul went to work with Mary Ford to bring his new sound to the next stage. In 1949, Crosby gave Paul one of the first reel-to-reel mono magnetic tape recorders. Before long, Paul figured out a way to modify the machine to record multiple tracks and stopped recording on discs altogether — the portable tape recorders fit his lifestyle perfectly.