This NJ icon had one of the biggest impacts on music
I am going to attempt in this writing to explain the importance and impact New Jersey’s own Les Paul had on the music industry. I know that is an impossible task but what the hell, I like a challenge.
Les Paul lived a fascinating life that he seemed to take in stride. Not that he wasn’t grateful; he just seemed to fit into the many aspects of his career that he touched. Les was born in Wisconsin and learned to play the harmonica at the age of 8 and taught himself to play the guitar shortly after.
Les was primarily a country music singer guitar and harmonica player who teamed up with Sonny Joe Wolverton and his band. They toured around the Midwest, ending up in St. Louis playing music on the KMOX radio, which was the premiere radio station in St. Louis. They were a hit so they packed up and hit Chicago, they were playing at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago when Les learned and enjoyed playing jazz from visits to Chicago’s Southside.
He stayed in Chicago with his days filled by playing country music on the radio and nights playing Jazz in Chicago’s jazz clubs. Les stuck with the jazz forming a trio and in 1937 left Chicago for New York.
It was in New York that he began developing his electric guitar.
In 1941 while jamming in his basement, he came close to electrocuting himself. His experiments had led him to the train tracks and the electricity from the third rail. He then developed a guitar from a single piece of wood, called the “log” that would be the prototype for the legendary Les Paul Gibson guitar. That guitar and the sound that it produced literally changed the way music sounded. It brought a whole new dimension to recordings and songs.
Les as a musician worked with many artists including Bing Crosby, Chet Atkins and he ended up marrying the talented performer Mary Ford. While working as a musician and recording music, Les started to map out multi-tracking systems.
Les did a recording session with Bing Crosby that led to Bing having a number one record in 1945. The name of the song was “It’s been a Long, Long Time”. Bing was so pleased at the quality of the record that he suggested to Les that he build a recording studio and Les did just that in his garage while living in Hollywood. He hand-built multi-track machines that were capable of overdubbing but the quality was so good it set a brand new standard to the music industry in recording. So many artists came to him to produce and more importantly engineer their records. It was a huge success.
Les went on to host radio and TV programs, played with his jazz trio and he and Mary moved to Mahwah, New Jersey, in 1964. They divorced in 1965 and he stayed at the Mahwah home until his death on Aug. 12, 2009, at the age of 94.
I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see Les Paul perform at the famous Iridium nightclub on Broadway in Manhattan.
My talented nephew Pete was a bartender at the Iridium and every Monday night Les Paul would perform and occasionally bring up celebrity guests who happened to be in New York at the time to jam with him. So my nephew Pete and my niece Marie set it all up. Pete says that he wants my good friend musician and performer New Jersey’s own Pat Guadagno to bring his guitar. He talked to Rusty, who was Les’s son and produced his Iridium show, and he’s got it all arranged for Pat to play one song with Les.
Well, we are all excited. We go out for a great dinner before. We go downstairs there’s a great booth reserved for us and here we are. Les comes on and was just awesome, and then halfway through he stops and calls up Pat. We go nuts and Pat hops up on stage to Les ribbing him about his long hair and the fact that he doesn’t have a Gibson guitar. I figured oh boy, we may be in trouble. Les seemed a little off-putting and says to Pat, “let me hear what you got.”
Pat gets into this song, all instrumental, and midway through the song Les starts to play and I don’t know what song it is and to this day neither does Pat. The song was very good and Pat was unbelievable, as a result, Les’s disposition changed 180 degrees and he started to throw accolades on Pat and question Pat about where he was playing, how can people find his music.
Pat was taken aback and gives a couple of one-word answers and Les says let’s do another song. The crowd cheers their acceptance and the sound that came out of the two of them was unbelievable. Les was so complementary to Pat and it truly was a goosebump experience.
After the show, Rusty comes over and says to Pat, “Dad never has a walk-up do two songs, great job.” Rusty also said that he listened to my show and enjoyed it. I was thrilled for Pat. We went up to thank Les and Pat got his guitar signed.
Les has received so many awards and accolades. He was given the National Letter of Arts by then-President George Bush. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame, the New Jersey Hall of Fame. He’s received The Grammy’s Trustee Award for his lifetime achievement to music. He’s on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and there are many others.
Les Paul — a very talented man who gave us so many contributions in making music more enjoyable.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 weekend host Big Joe Henry. Any opinions expressed are Big Joe’s own.