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Celebrating Les Paul At 100

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Les Paul, ca. January 1947 (Photograph by William P. Gottlieb)
Guitar Virtuoso Trail-Blazed His Way To Becoming The Consummate Musician And The Darling Of Dozens Of Rock And Roll Icons Who Credit Him With The Innovations That Changed The Music World Forever

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

June 8, 2015 — It was never easy to pigeonhole Les Paul. His virtuosity as a guitarist, songwriter and inventor of the solid-body electric guitar helped usher in rock n’ roll. Paul’s legacy is being celebrated as the centennial of his birth gets amplified on June 9, with events planned throughout the country – truly a case of Les is more.

The celebrations include Neal Schon of the rock-band Journey accepting a proclamation from the Les Paul Foundation declaring June 9 as Les Paul Day. Organizers say other cities around the country also will declare Les Paul Day proclamations on June 9.

A 53-foot-long interactive mobile exhibition called Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience will then open to the public — for one day only – in New York City before going on a national tour.

Paul, dubbed the “Wizard of Waukesha” (Wisconsin, the place of his birth), was born William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915. That Milwaukee suburb will also pay homage to their native son at a Waukesha County Museum event, which houses many of his artifacts. Central Middle School in Waukesha was renamed Les Paul Middle School last year and his hometown also honored the musician with a Les Paul Parkway and a band shell named after him.

In downtown Milwaukee, Discovery World, home of the Les Paul's House of Sound permanent exhibit, officially recognizes Paul's birthday with a special exhibit, “The Les Paul Sound: Centennial Special,” featuring scientific demonstrations and displays inspired by Paul's sound and recording innovations.

Paul is one of a handful of artists with a permanent, stand-alone exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. He is also the only person to be included in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Long associated with the Gibson Guitar Company, Paul described his style to Gibson.com this way: “When I started playing, well… ever since I was a freckle-faced, red-headed kid, I just attacked the guitar. I was terribly aggressive about it. There were certain things that, if they intrigued me, whether it was music or electronics, I just went for the throat.”

Paul was gaining traction professionally in the latter half of the 1930s. He was drafted into the US Army in 1943, where he served in the Armed Forces Radio Network, backing such artists as Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. He would collaborate many times in the recording studio with Crosby.

In 1945, Paul met country-western singer Iris Colleen Summers. In 1948 she took the stage name Mary Ford and the team of Les Paul and Mary Ford was born. They married in 1949. Their hits included "How High the Moon," "Bye Bye Blues," "Song in Blue," "Don'cha Hear Them Bells," "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" and "Vaya con Dios." The couple divorced in 1964.

In a Guitarist Magazine interview, Paul explained the origins for his invention of the solid-body guitar. "The way it started was that when I took a phonograph pickup and jabbed it into the front of the guitar, I had a guitar that was amplified, but I had a lot of feedback, so I filled it with tablecloths and socks and everything I could think of; in the end I filled it up with plaster of Paris. None of that worked, and I finally destroyed the guitar.”

One hundred years after his birth, Paul is remembered for many things: as a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar; the creator of multi-track recording and other groundbreaking studio technologies and for his own successful music career. Paul died on Aug. 12, 2009, performing up until just a few weeks before his death.

In the Gibson.com interview, Paul summed up his career this way: “Miles Davis asked me, ‘What’s the secret, Les? People love you.’ I said, ‘It’s simple, but it’ll be difficult for you.’ And he says, ‘Well, tell me. Tell me, what should I do?’ I said, ‘Play ‘Mockingbird Hill.’ “I don’t play that goddamned thing,’ he says to me. I say back, ‘I’m only kidding, Miles. The secret is, I don’t play for myself; I play for the people. I do my best to entertain.’”

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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