The Wizard of Waukesha and the Log 'Heard Round the World
Throughout 2015, Epiphone proudly celebrates the 100th birthday of Les Paul, the Wizard of Waukesha, the Thomas Edison of rock n' roll, and a life long fan and friend of the Epiphone and Gibson families. The bard of electric guitar is still a big part of our lives here at the House of Stathopoulo. How many times in an average day does someone, on stage, in a recording studio, or on a blog--say the words: Les Paul?
Les was a dynamo in his lifetime--arranging, inventing, and breathing music. There doesn't seem to be a single big moment in 20th century pop music history that he did not participate in or help spark. And all of the great guitarists of our day still find him inspiring and intimidating. "He just wiped the stage with me," Slash told Billboard in 2015 recalling their first meeting. "I couldn't keep up with him."
In the early 40s, Les took the first steps toward the pioneering design of what would become the Les Paul solid body guitar, an instrument that was dreamed, sketched, sawed, and pieced together in Epiphone's factory in New York. Nicknamed "The Log" and now residing in the Country Music Hall of Fame, "The Log" was the first in a series of homemade electric guitars that Les used to record dozens of pioneering hit records with his wife, Mary Ford.
Those records enchanted young listeners (and future musicians) everywhere in the U.S. and in England. And for more than half a century, Les' guitar and his superbly engineered multi-track recordings have influenced every aspect of the music industry. Les was not shy about his accomplishments. But we never got tired of hearing Les' stories. There was the time Les and his trio drove to Oklahoma to check out Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and befriended future jazz legend Charlie Christian ("He asked for my autograph. I asked him if he could play and he said, 'Yeah!' and oh boy, could he!"). Or the time Les picked up a live wire in his home studio and nearly shocked himself to death; how he survived a car crash on Route 66 and narrowly averted having his arm amputated ('I told the doctor to set it where I could still use a pick and hold a guitar"). And finally, there are tales of jamming in the window of Epiphone's showroom in New York City by day and building The Log guitar by night while sharing some amorgiano wine with Epiphone's founder Epi Stathopoulo.
Les instinctively grasped the possibilities of magnetic recording and helped design the first multi-track tape machine as well as the first mixing board to go with it. Two of the era's greatest recording engineers, Rudy Van Gelder of Blue Note and Tom Dowd of Atlantic, ordered equipment just like Les had in his home studio, effectively putting his fingerprints on the best jazz and rhythm and blues records of the 50s and 60s. Multi-track recording revolutionized the business and there would be no Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or dozens of other classic albums without it.
Les also experimented with early humbucker pickups ("I took apart a telephone and saw how they cancelled the hum," Les told the Country Music Hall of Fame) and his pals Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender discussed their early solid body guitar designs in Les' backyard.
Along with Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, Les was a constant presence during the early days of television and the reason most non-guitar players even know what a guitar looks like. Les had little use for formality of any kind and showed deference to no mortal except perhaps Django Reinhardt. Though Les' understanding of the complicated world of electronics was unparalleled, his performances were never tidy, flawless events. A night with Les at his weekly show at Fat Tuesdays or the Iridium Club in New York was full of bawdy jokes, double entendres, and most of all, a fierce desire to entertain.
Les' life was one of endless experimentation, trial, and sometimes near-fatal error, but he stayed on his feet until his death in 2009 at age 94, performing, signing autographs, and always commenting, critiquing, and encouraging all of us at Epiphone with his enthusiasm.
The Wizard of Waukesha
Lester William Polsfuss was born June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and showed an early love for music and experimentation. He started playing harmonica at the age of 8. As a teenager, he took up guitar, fashioning a homemade holder so he could play both at the same time. He performed country & western hits of the day and experimented with amplifying his acoustic guitar by wiring a phonograph needle near the bridge and connecting it to a radio speaker. Les dropped out of high school and continued performing on radio first in St. Louis, and then eventually moving to Chicago, where he made his first recording for the Montgomery Ward label (credited to his alter-ego, Rhubarb Red).
In Chicago, he changed his name to Les Paul and formed a trio with Jim Atkins, Chet Atkins' older brother, and bassist Ernie Newton, (who eventually moved to Nashville and performed with Hank Williams in the early 50s). The Les Paul Trio relocated to New York in 1938 to seek their fortune. "We tossed a coin," Les told the Country Music Hall of Fame, "'Heads' was New York and 'tails' was Los Angeles.' They won an audition on Fred Waring's popular radio program and quickly earned a following among guitarists in the city. With the success of the radio show and a little money in his pocket, Les continued his quest to create a guitar that could "sustain for days" without feedback.
The Log: Plugging in at the House of Stathopoulo
Epi Stathopoulo's factory and showroom located at 142 West 14th Street in a seven-story beaux-arts style building near Little Italy was a meeting place for all the best jazz players in the city. "I knew Epi Stathopoulo and the Epiphone people very well and loved their instruments," Les recalled in Les Paul, In His Own Words, "and knowing them as I did, it was no problem to get permission to use their machinery and equipment on Sundays, when the place was shut down. Working on Sundays, I took a length of 4x4 pine, put an Epiphone neck on it, wound a couple of homemade pickups, and mounted them on the wood. Then I added a bridge and Vibrola tailpiece, strung it up, and I had The Log. It was crude, but when I plugged it into an amp, it worked."
"I was looking for volume, tone, and sustain that could be controlled, still chasing the idea that started with stretching a guitar string over a section of railroad rail," continued Les. "The thing that grabbed me about the early experiment was how the string vibrated and sustained almost indefinitely when anchored to the solidity of the steel rail, with no feedback whatsoever."
Les first debuted his new creation at Gladys' Bar in Sunnyside in 1940. Recalling that first gig with The Log to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Les said the crowd at Gladys' took no notice. "We played great and it sounded great. I was flying up and down the neck. Nothing: no response. They couldn't care less. So I thought, hmm. Then I went back to Epiphone and sawed an old archtop in half and braced the halves to The Log. I went back the following week to Gladys'--same musicians, played the same song--and everybody loved it. That's when I learned people listen with their eyes!"
Guitar players around the country first took notice of Les' confident tone and chops when he backed up Bing Crosby on "It's Been A Long, Long, Time", a massive wartime-inspired hit, and the first pop record to prominently feature an electric guitar. Still seeking a chart breakthrough under his own name, Les hired Iris Colleen Summers to sing with his trio on the recommendation of Eddie Dean and Gene Autry in 1946. Les and Ms. Summers soon fell in love. Together they invented the stage name “Mary Ford” and began experimenting with Les' new idea of multi-track recording, accomplished by transferring multiple takes of voices and guitars between two cutting lathes. They married and settled in Los Angeles, working out of a homemade studio in their garage, and began recording for Capitol Records on the recommendation of Nat King Cole.
"How High the Moon"
Though Les and Mary had several successful singles in the late 40s, everything turned around when the couple’s revolutionary remake of the standard "How High the Moon" went to #1 on the Billboard singles chart in 1951. Part pop, part jazz, part country, and all out-of-this-world, "How High the Moon" featured Les' dizzying overdubbed guitar parts and Mary supersonic harmonies, all cut live to disc on a cutting lathe powered by a Cadillac flywheel in Les' garage in Hollywood.
"How High the Moon" drove adult guitar players--and a whole lot of kids--bonkers. And when we say "kids" we mean kids like Jeff Beck, George Harrison, and Jimmy Page. With its Django-inspired runs and primordial rock n' roll attitude, "How High the Moon" announced the 50s with all the gumption of Daffy Duck bursting through a boardroom full of dull executives and yelling, "All right you wise guys--get a load of this!"
And then, Les' old friend Bing Crosby brought him a present."In 1949, Bing Crosby brought an Ampex 300 over to my house in LA, where I was then living," Les told Sound On Sound. "He asked me to go out into the front yard and help him get it out of his trunk, and then once I did that and the machine was indoors he said, 'Well, have fun,' and left. So, there I was, busy recording to disc, and I looked at the machine and all of a sudden the light went on -- what if I put a fourth head on this machine? I took a piece of paper and a pencil, I drew it out, and I went to Mary and I said, 'Forget hanging up the laundry, forget the whole thing. Lock the place up, we're leaving. I've just found a way to record without needing the garage or a recording studio. I can do the whole thing anywhere that we wish to record.' All I needed was a fourth head on that mono 300 deck."
Everything soon came together for Les. The Log, the Klunker, and all of his other Epiphone-driven guitar experiments eventually inspired Gibson to make the Les Paul Goldtop. Built in collaboration between Les and Gibson President Ted McCarty, the Les Paul became a truly revolutionary instrument when it was first released in 1952. It featured two P-90 pickups with a slightly arched maple top, a mahogany body and neck and a stunning gold finish that was easily recognized from a distance.
Virtually every major artist of the '50s at one time or another owned a Les Paul, including Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker and even future acoustic guitar great Doc Watson. Buddy Holly and Duane Eddy's first guitars were Les Pauls. It was modern, classy, familiar, and strange all at the same time. And, it was loud!
Thinking of Les as we celebrate his birthday, we're glad Epiphone's maverick reputation continues today. But Epiphone’s #1 maverick will always be Les Paul. He saw the future and forged it in our factory. And he helped bring Epiphone and Gibson together in 1957, too. When you're talking about Les Paul, no single feature can do him justice. And since it's his birthday, we'll let Les himself have the last word.
Les Paul: The Epiphone Interview
In 2003, Dr. Epiphone (a.k.a. Will Jones) spoke with Les in Nashville at a party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Gibson Custom. At age 88, Les' mind was still sharp, full of mischief, and appreciation for his long friendship with Epiphone.
Les, first off let me thank you for your time and for all you have done for music! My first question however is about The Log: I understand you built it on the weekends?
Yes, that's right I built the guitar at the Epiphone factory on Sundays when they were closed. I had the run of the place, did what ever I wanted.
So, the Log was made from a 4"x 4" piece of wood and Epiphone parts?
That's right. I used a 4"x 4" piece of pine and Epiphone body parts for wings and an Epiphone neck. I made the pickups myself.
The original headstock on the Log was Epiphone?
Yes, when I signed on with Gibson later on they changed the name on it.
Did Epi and the boys at Epiphone support your experiments?
They all thought I was crazy. Hell, Gibson thought I was crazy.
So how well did you know Epi Stathopoulo?
I knew him very well, we were good friends, very good friends. I knew all those guys at Epiphone real well. Years after when Epiphone went down, we all stood around and held hands and cried. I told Mr. Berlin at Gibson he should buy out Epiphone. Keep the name going, 'cause they always made damn fine guitars and had a real good name with players. You know I had several Epiphones that I have played over the years and I loved them.
What was Epi's personality like? Was he as funny as you?
No, he was pretty serious most of the time. He had a good sense of humor, but he was a serious man for the most part.
So what do you think of today's Epiphone products, especially the Les Paul's from Epiphone?
They are damn fine instruments, I swear by them! People can buy one of my guitars no matter how much money they have. A kid can get an Epiphone and have something worth something, not a hunk-of-junk like the other brands. He can learn well on one and have it and play it the rest of his life. Epiphone is meeting standards of quality like Gibson which I am proud to see. I tell you they are damn fine instruments!
Any words of wisdom today to the young folks out there just getting started on guitar?
Just that they need a good guitar like an Epiphone so they won't get discouraged; so they will practice and work hard and enjoy their music.