Epiphone celebrates Les' 101st Birthday with exclusive unheard interviews
How many times a day does someone on a concert stage, in a recording studio, or on a blog, say the words: Les Paul? In his lifetime, Les was a dynamo of pure musical energy--arranging, inventing, and breathing music.
From the late 1930s until his death in 2009, Les inspired virtually every facet of popular music and invented the role of the artist/producer. His fans included The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Chet Atkins, Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, Steve Miller (Miller's parents attended Les' wedding to Mary Ford), and Jimmy Page. And the great guitarists of our day still find him intimidating. "He just wiped the stage with me," Slash told Billboard in 2015 recalling their first meeting. "I couldn't keep up with him." Luckily for fans and historians, Les was also a gracious interviewee (and funny self-promoter) who never failed to give credit to his inspirations, his contemporaries, and his methods. And now for the first time, you can hear excerpts from Epiphone's own exclusive interviews (Les Paul phone interview by Jim Fisch on November 18,1992)> with Les on subjects ranging from the layout of the Epiphone factory to how he encouraged Gibson to come to Epiphone's rescue in the late 50s.
Epiphone's long friendship with The Wizard of Waukesha began around 1940 when Les used the Epiphone factory as his personal workshop to create what no other instrument company --including Gibson or Epiphone-- believed could succeed in the marketplace: a solid body guitar. After much trial and error, "The Log", made mostly of Epiphone parts (now in the Country Music Hall of Fame), would become Les' main instrument, powering countless radio gigs, a million selling single with Bing Crosby, and Les' pioneering hit singles with wife, Mary Ford. "I built the Log at the Epiphone factory," recalled Les in an interview with Epiphone. "They let me use the Epiphone factory every Sunday... I put in a lot of hard work down there to make the Log."
Though neither Epiphone nor Gibson saw the potential in a solidbody electric guitar at first, Les Paul and Mary Ford's success eventually inspired not only the Les Paul guitar, but also a revolution of sorts in the industry. Les was the first artist to have total command of every aspect of his career and his sound. It was a path that Les was set on from the beginning of his life. From his first memories, Les not only wanted to be the musician who played on the radio, but the Wizard behind the curtain who transported the listener to another universe.
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 before he was 10. As a teenager, Les also took up guitar, fashioning a homemade harmonica 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.
Lester's interest in manipulating sound was also sparked by a visit to the RCA Recording Studios in Camden, New Jersey when he was 17. Lester and his mother treasured their first "plug in radio" in the early 1930s and one of the artists they bonded over was Jimmie Rodgers, the Blue Yodeler, who himself started a musical revolution with his easy combination of blues, folk, jazz, and pop. He later recalled that he and his mother happened upon a Jimmie Rodgers recording session on a visit to RCA studios and Les was fascinated by the work of the recording engineers and how they placed microphones far away from Jimmie to give his recordings a unique sense of space. From that moment on, Lester tried to replicate the "echo" sound of Jimmie's records by performing in tiled bathrooms or hallways and doing his own experiments with placing microphones at a distance from their intended source. "Jimmie Rodgers did more for me than just the songs he was singing and his style of music. I was also interested in the acoustical sound and the way I was going to mimic those sounds."
With his mother's blessing, Lester 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). 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. When the Trio decided it was time 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." New York won out, and the enterprising trio soon won an audition on Fred Waring's popular radio program where Les quickly earned a following among the top jazz guitarists in the city, including electric pioneer Charlie Christian, who he first heard at a dance in Tulsa, Oklahoma with Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys.
"Over time, through being with Charlie, I realized how tough it is to come down on that one note in the right place, and how much more of a drive he had," Les told Andy Schwartz for the Charlie Christian box set on Sony. "He had that ability, like Lionel Hampton, to take a note, to take one "A," and just pound it into your head until it was the greatest note you'd ever heard. With all the technique they have out there, with all these guitar players--the one that wins is still the fellow that plays that one note I heard that night in Tulsa. He never lived to fulfill what he could have done, should have done. But I loved that man. Charlie Christian was my friend."
Les' time in New York not only furthered his reputation, it also fired his imagination. He didn't just want to play guitar--he wanted to build one. "That time with Fred Waring was just the greatest education, the biggest break in my life," Les told Gibson. With the success of the radio show and a little money in his pocket, Les intensified his quest to create a guitar that could "sustain for days" without feedback. Taking note that Epiphone had opened a new showroom and "laboratory" on 14th street, Les decided to introduce himself to the Stathopoulos after he heard Epiphone tenor guitarist Leonard Ware, one of the great-unsung pioneers of tenor electric guitar. In an interview with Epiphone, Les called Ware "the best guitar player in New York. He could really make things happen. But at that time he was playing an Epiphone and that's what got me to go down to the Epiphone people and introduce myself and they were very happy to see me..."