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The World Has Lost a Remarkable Innovator and Musician: Les Paul Passes Away at 94

United States
English
1915-2009

New York, NY…August 13, 2009 — Les Paul, acclaimed guitar player, entertainer and inventor, passed away today from complications of severe pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York, surrounded by family and loved ones. He had been receiving the best available treatment through this final battle and in keeping with his persona, he showed incredible strength, tenacity and courage. 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.”

Meanwhile, Paul began to experiment with dubbing live tracks over recorded tracks, also altering the playback speed. This resulted in “Lover (When You’re Near Me),” his revolutionary 1947 predecessor to multi-track recording. The hit instrumental featured Les Paul on eight different electric guitar parts, all playing together. In 1948, Paul nearly lost his life to a devastating car crash that shattered his right arm and elbow. Still, he convinced doctors to set his broken arm in the guitar-picking and cradling position. Laid up but undaunted, Paul acquired a first generation Ampex tape recorder from Crosby in 1949, and began his most important multi-tracking adventure, adding a fourth head to the recorder to create sound-on-sound recordings. While tinkering with the machine and its many possibilities, he also came up with tape delay. These tricks, along with another recent Les Paul innovation—close mic-ing vocals—were integrated for the first time on a single recording: the 1950 No. 1 tour de force “How High the Moon.”

This historic track was performed during a duo with future wife Mary Ford. The couple’s prolific string of hits for Capitol Records not only included some of the most popular recordings of the early 1950s, but also wrote the book on contemporary studio production. The dense but crystal clear harmonic layering of guitars and vocals, along with Ford’s close mic-ed voice and Paul’s guitar effects, produced distinctively contemporary recordings with unprecedented sonic qualities. Through hits, tours, and popular radio shows, Paul and Ford kept one foot in the technological vanguard and the other in the cultural mainstream.

All the while, Les Paul continued to pine for the perfect guitar. Though The Log came close, it wasn’t quite what he was after. In the early 1950s, Gibson Guitar would cultivate a partnership with Paul that would lead to the creation of the guitar he’d seen only in his dreams. In 1948, Gibson elected to design its first solidbody, and Paul, a self-described “dyed-in-the-wool Gibson man,” seemed the right man for the job. Gibson avidly courted the guitar legend, even driving deep into the Pennsylvania mountains to deliver the first model to newlyweds Les Paul and Mary Ford.

“Les played it, and his eyes lighted up,” then-Gibson President Ted McCarty has recalled. The year was 1950, and Paul had just signed on as the namesake of Gibson’s first electric solidbody, with exclusive design privileges. Working closely with Paul, Gibson forged a relationship that would change popular culture forever. The Gibson Les Paul model—the most powerful and respected electric guitar in history—began with the 1952 release of the Les Paul Goldtop. After introducing the original Les Paul Goldtop in 1952, Gibson issued the Black Beauty, the mahogany-topped Les Paul Custom, in 1954. The Les Paul Junior (1954) and Special (1955) were also introduced before the canonical Les Paul Standard hit the market in 1958. With revolutionary humbucker pickups, this sunburst classic has remained unchanged for the half-century since it hit the market.

“The world has lost a truly innovative and exceptional human being today. I cannot imagine life without Les Paul. He would walk into a room and put a smile on anyone’s face. His musical charm was extraordinary and his techniques unmatched anywhere in the world,” said Henry Juszkiewicz, Chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar. “We will dedicate ourselves to preserving Les’ legacy to insure that it lives on forever. He touched so many lives throughout his remarkable life and his influence extends around the globe and across every boundary. I have lost a dear, personal friend and mentor, a man who has changed so many of our lives for the better.” “I don’t think any words can describe the man we know as Les Paul adequately. The English language does not contain words that can pay enough homage to someone like Les. As the “Father of the Electric Guitar”, he was not only one of the world’s greatest innovators but a legend who created, inspired and contributed to the success of musicians around the world,” said Dave Berryman, President of Gibson Guitar. “I have had the privilege to know and work with Les for many, many years and his passing has left a deep personal void. He was simply put – remarkable in every way. As a person, a musician, a friend, an inventor. He will be sorely missed by us all,”

With the rise of the rock ’n’ roll revolution of 1955, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s popularity began to wane with younger listeners, though Paul would prove to be a massive influence on younger generation of guitarists. Still, Paul and Ford maintained their iconic presence with their wildly popular television show, which ran from 1953-1960. In 1964, the couple, parents to a son and daughter, divorced. Paul began playing in Japan, and recorded an LP for London Records before poor health forced him to take time off—as much as someone so inspired can take time off.

In the 1977, Paul resurfaced with a Grammy-winning Chet Atkins collaboration, Chester and Lester. Then the ailing guitarist, who’d already suffered arthritis and permanent hearing loss, had a heart attack, followed by bypass surgery.

Ever stubborn, Les recovered, and returned to live performance in the late 1980s. Until recently Les continued to perform two weekly New York shows with the Les Paul Trio, even releasing the 2005 double-Grammy winner Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played, featuring collaborations with a veritable who’s who of the electric guitar, including dozens of illustrious fans like Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Joe Perry. In 2008, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame paid tribute to Les Paul in a week-long celebration of his life which culminated with a live performance by Les himself. Les Paul has since become the only individual to share membership into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Les is survived by his three sons Lester (Rus) G. Paul, Gene W. Paul and Robert (Bobby) R. Paul, his daughter Colleen Wess, son-in-law Gary Wess, long time friend Arlene Palmer, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. A private Funeral service will be held in New York. A service in Waukesha, WI will be announced at a later date. Details will follow and will be announced for all services. Memorial tributes for the public will be announced at a future date. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Les Paul Foundation, 236 West 30th Street, 7th Floor, New York, New York 10001.

Slash said, “Les Paul was a shining example of how full one’s life can be, he was so vibrant and full of positive energy. I’m honored and humbled to have known and played with him over the years, he was an exceptionally brilliant man.”

Joe Satriani said, “Les Paul set a standard for musicianship and innovation that remains unsurpassed. He was the original guitar hero, and the kindest of souls. Last October I joined him onstage at The Iridium club in NYC, and he was still shredding. He was and still is an inspiration to us all.”

Keb’ Mo’ said, “He’s a guy who played right up to the end, that’s what we all want to do! With his brilliant playing and invention of multi track recording, Les Paul changed the face of music history.”

Bootsy Collins said, “Yes, it is very painful when you lose a man, his music, and his everyday presence here on this planet called earth. For us musicians that knew the bar that this man Mr. Les Paul set, not only for guitar players but for music in general, especially rock music, the world will never be the same. His famous Gibson Les Paul brand Guitar’s are still to this day the number one hottest rock guitar on the market. I got the opportunity in 1991 to do a session with Mr. Paul when I was with Dee-Lite, we did a song called: “A little More of Les”. yes, one of my corky titles of course, but It was such an inspiration to be in the presence of such greatness, he will be sadly missed by many. We love you Les!”

Joan Jett said, “I, and everyone at Blackheart Records, mourn the passing of our dear friend, Les Paul. He was a genius inventor, musical innovator, and a wonderful person. Without the advances he pioneered, the recording sciences and the electric guitar would have been left years behind. I will miss him so much.”

Ace Frehley said, “The music industry has lost a giant! I’m very saddened by the news of Les Paul’s passing. I was lucky enough to have known Les as a friend, and admired him as a musician and innovator. He forever changed the way we listen to music.”

Butch Walker said, “Les Paul... I will always owe you.. bigtime...”

Billy Gibbons said, “Les Paul brought six strings to electricity and electricity to six strings. Les Paul was an innovator, a groundbreaker, a risk taker, a mentor and a friend. Try to imagine what we’d be doing if he hadn’t come along and changed the world. There will always be more Les to come. That’s certified.”

Keith Urban said, “I have a mix of emotions today. On one hand, I am deeply saddened at Les Paul’s passing, and on the other a feeling of incredible gratitude and awe for his unquantifiable contribution to the world of music. His name adorns so many of the creations that I communicate through every night out here on the road...He is also very present every time I set foot in the studio and am able to lay multiple tracks as I record, when I use echo, etc., the list of his inventions, in addition to his famous signature model Gibson, are extraordinary. I also feel that even in his nineties, the fact he was still playing every Monday night in New York is perhaps the most beautiful and inspiring achievement of all. As Vince Gill would say, “Go rest high on that mountain Les...cause son, your work on earth is done.”

Joe Perry said, “As a guitarist and a fan of music in general, I know the amazing contributions Les Paul made in his lifetime to the art of making music. I think if the general public knew how much of that influence is heard every day in the music that they listen to, they would be amazed. He was a true genius. The few times that I had met him, he made me feel like I had known him forever. He was always sharp, ready to rock and he was always talking about his next gig. Knowing that he is not walking the earth anymore is sad and I have lost a friend. But every time I pick up a guitar I’ll know that his spirit is alive and well right next to me. “

Derek Trucks said, “Les Paul played until the day he died. I admire that... That’s the way you live a life.”

On his many achievements Derek Trucks said, “You could take any one of the many things he did and it would have been enough for most people. Inventing multi-tracking and then the 1st great solid body electric guitar. The amount of things he pulled off is pretty astounding.”

Mick Jones said, “As a child I was introduced to the sound of Les Paul through my parent’s record collection. It was a spellbinding moment when I first heard ‘How High The Moon’ featuring Mary Ford. His innovation and recording techniques contributed greatly to the creation of Rock music.”

Rickey Medlocke said, “I’m so thankful that this guy was such an incredible genius for developing such a great guitar. I am a 3rd generation Gibson user and I always will be. God bless Les Paul.”

Tad Kubler said, “There are very few human beings in history that touched so many people the way Les Paul did. He shared his gifts with everyone and brought people together with his brilliance and devotion to music and the art of sound. It was a privilege to have met him. He will be incredibly missed. But our blessing is to know his spirit and soul will live for eternity in music everywhere.”

Wes Scantlon said, “Les and I have the same birthday – it is an honor to have been born on the same day as such a genius guitarist, innovator and human being”

Neil Portnow (President/CEO of The Recording Academy®) said, “Three-time GRAMMY® winner Les Paul was a musical mastermind whose innovations in electric guitar and recorded music are unparalleled. A 1983 Trustees Award recipient and a 2001 Technical GRAMMY Award recipient, his career and contributions to popular music will forever be celebrated, and will continue to influence future generations of musicians. His magnetic charm and sunny disposition matched his incredible skill set, and he will always be remembered with great fondness, humility, and respect. The music industry has lost a true innovator and legend.”

Terry Stewart (President of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum) said, “Without Les Paul, we would not have rock and roll as we know it,” said Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “His inventions created the infrastructure for the music and his playing style will ripple through generations. He was truly an architect of rock and roll.”

Elliott Easton said, “I am deeply saddened by the passing of Les Paul. It is simply impossible to overstate the impact he has had on the modern world and our culture. There are those that refer to Les as “the Thomas Edison of Music Technology”. To me that is inadequate. Thomas Edison never invented a device that could make the world fall in love with you. There isn’t a person working in the music industry today that doesn’t benefit in some way from Les’ pioneering work.”

Brian Wilson said, “Les Paul and Mary Ford were among my most favorite musicians in the 50’s. He was the first guy to do multi guitar multi track recording and that turned me on to guitars and stacking vocals for our records.”

Johnny A. said, “I am personally very saddened by the passing of Mr. Les Paul. As well as being such an iconic figure in the world of music, as a player and inventor, Les was truly a gentleman with an unbeatable sense of humor. It has been my honor to have known and played with him. His spirit will surely be missed.”

Dave Navarro, “Les is single handedly responsible for the direction and evolution of the modern rock movement. Period. If you are a fan of modern music, you owe Les Paul an enormous THANK YOU!”

Don Miggs said, “I used to promise myself that every trip back home to NY should be capped off with seeing Les perform. I knew he wasn’t going to be around forever and seeing him was a “must-do.” Sadly, I never made good on my promise but one night I was walking into a deli and who do I see? Yup. My palms went sweaty, my tongue felt thick and I got a pit in my stomach, but I stopped him with a grunt of some sort. He looked me square in eye like “don’t miss this moment,” and I gulped and said, “It’s because of you I can put food on my family’s table, thank you,” and he said, “You’ve done that for yourself, son, but thank you.” And he was gone. Ah, Les, thank you thank you.”

Randy Bachman said, “I am deeply touched by the passing of Les Paul who I first met in 1959. As a guitarist, composer, electronic innovator and inventor he was beyong genius and there was none other like him. He was a true musical gift from God to the world and spent his life honoring that gift. I proudly play my Les Paul guitars every night on stage and never forget the moments we shared.”

Gary Rossington said, “I am very saddened to hear about the passing of Les Paul, he was an amazing guitarist. I play a Les Paul guitar every night and it’s the best sounding guitar ever made. I have a framed t-shirt on my wall, signed by Les Paul that I admire when I’m at home, Les was the best!”
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