By Mark Smotroff
On a stop in Waukesha to visit his father’s new tavern, Paul agreed to play the opening. Without his trio for backup, Paul turned to Ford, even though she’d never played any of his songs on guitar herself. The new duo managed, however, and they started rehearsing the next day, along with a bass player they’d found. They spent several months in Waukesha polishing their act and playing nightly. Paul and Ford were married Dec. 31, 1949.
Paul developed the “Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home” radio show that year, a series that aired for 23 weeks in 1949 and 1950. “Many of the tremendous hits we made for Capitol (‘Avalon,’ ‘How High The Moon,’ ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’) were first done on those 15-minute shows,” Paul said.
The shows bubbled over with sonic invention. “On our show I’d always be talking about my new inventions, and Mary would get exasperated and say, ‘Oh Les, you and your electronic gadgets!’” Paul recalled. Paul even got the idea for a new technology from the show. The “Les Paulverizer” was originally presented as a simple way to explain Paul’s layered sound to the public.
“I wanted to find a way of doing what I did on records on stage, radio and eventually TV,” Paul explained. “It’d entertain people but also explain why they heard more than one guitar or voice without getting too technical.
“On the radio shows, I’d say, ‘With my Les Paulverizer, I can multiply Mary’s voice into a glee club and my guitar into an orchestra.’ Then I’d demonstrate by making voices a chorus and the guitar a whole section of guitars. So the Paulverizer became part of our schtick.”
But playing to backing tracks wasn’t enough for Paul — he wanted to make a real Les Paulverizer. Years later, he succeeded, and the first audience for it was President Eisenhower at the White House. Over the years, Paul upgraded the device until it become more than just a way to play back taped tracks. It could record live and generate multiple recordings simultaneously.
Ultimately, Paul developed true multi-track recordings, allocating separate spaces for each instrument on the same piece of tape. This allowed him to fix mistakes and make even better recordings. By 1955, his “Octopus” was the world’s first 8-track recorder. This equipment didn’t come into popular use for more than a decade, when The Beatles recorded the White Album.
Paul recalled a conversation with Capitol’s chief engineer at the time about his 8-track. Paul asked why they weren’t using the multi-track machine, and the engineer asked him, “Where are we gonna find another Les Paul and Mary Ford?”
Paul said, “They didn’t think the tool could be used advantageously by anybody outside of Les Paul and Mary Ford. Ten years later, they finally dug out a 4-track and started playing around with it. I talked to Paul McCartney about it — it was one of the rare meetings Paul and I have had.
“Paul said, ‘You ought to get a kick out of this, Les. The Beatles started with John and me. This particular night we came out and opened with one of our original songs. The proprietor of the place came over and said, ‘For God’s sake, you kids are gonna die with this thing. Pick out something well-known and commercial.’ So Paul said they decided to make it ‘The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise’ and ‘How High Is The Moon.’
“I asked him, ‘How did that sit with you guys?’ Because there are a lot of things in the format I used that were very important to our career. One of them was never to follow ourselves. If I made a ‘Tiger Rag,’ I never made a second one. Guy Lombardo made everything the same; so did Elvis Presley and many others, where they kept repeating themselves with the same styles and the same types of songs.
“Well, when I asked McCartney, he said, ‘We had a meeting on it. The discussion was that if we followed you, we’d be a clone. And rather than get trapped into cloning you, we had to do everything we could to stay away from you but follow the format.’
“If you listen to The Beatles, you’ll find their songs are very different one from another. You’ll notice that our ‘Chicken Reel’ is far from ‘Walkin’ And Whistlin’ Blues.’ We had variety. Each number we did was very different, yet the public would say that is Les Paul and Mary Ford. We had our sound.”
Paul and Ford’s hard work paid off quickly. The pair signed a new deal with Capitol as a duo and their New Sound recordings became international best-sellers. They won DownBeat magazine’s readers’ polls three years straight, from 1951 to ’53. By 1952, they had sold an estimated 10 million records, with hits like “Vaya Con Dios,” “Mockingbird Hill,” “Tiger Rag” and even “Jingle Bells.”
Radio wasn’t the only medium Les Paul and Mary Ford conquered. They were also pioneers in a newly emerging one, television.
The “Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home” show was a counterpart to their radio programs, shot in 35mm black-and-white at their new Mahwah, N.J., estate.
According to Paul, the producer had originally envisioned a 15-minute show.
“In the big meeting we had, this thing came up and I said, ‘I’ve got an idea. What would you say about a five-minute show? [The producer] said, ‘That’s very peculiar, a five minute show? What in the world are you gonna do with it? It won’t fit anywhere.’ I said, ‘Hear me out — the most important time that you can capture is the time you get up, the time you eat and the time you go to bed, when they are telling you what time it is, what the weather is and what the news is. If you hang around the news you got the hottest spot on the radio or TV.’
“They weren’t even considering radio. We created a separate set of shows that were interspersed before the news, in the middle of the news or at the end of the news. In the morning when you get up and are shaving, you’re either looking at us on TV or hearing us in your car on the radio. That’s what I visualized, and they bought it. They didn’t even take a vote on it. We were on for seven years, doing five five-minute shows that aired five times a day, five times a week, about 170 episodes altogether,” Paul said.
“Coming up with fresh ideas for all these programs was an enormous challenge. Sometimes we’d just sit down with sandwiches and beer and say, ‘Well, what should we do now?’ Other times it would get pretty wild.
“Like when they’d be putting makeup on me and the producer would come in: ‘I need something 1:02 long, and since the song before was slow, make this piece up-tempo.’ I’d actually sit there with a stopwatch and clock off 1:02 and work out a tempo that fit. By the time they’d finished the makeup job, I’d already figured out the drum part and bass line and would be thinking of a melody … we improvised almost all the time.”
After a 10-year run of hit records, concerts, radio and TV shows, Paul retired in the early ’60s to concentrate on inventing. He and Ford divorced in 1964; Ford died of pneumonia in 1977.
In 1967, Paul recorded an LP of new takes on many of his old hits for London’s Phase 4 label. He came out of retirement in the mid-’70s to become the music director for the “Happy Days” TV show and to record a Grammy-winning album, Chester And Lester, with country picker Chet Atkins.
Later, he formed a new trio that hearkened back to his first group from the ’40s. In 2005, Paul won two Grammys for Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played, an album’s worth of original rock tracks, with guests including Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Richie Sambora. Paul continued to perform until shortly before his death Aug. 13 at the age of 94.