Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Les Paul readied the world for rock ’n’ roll with rip-roaring performances, radio hits and musical innovations. He’s best known for inventing multi-track recording and the solid-body electric guitar, but his legacy extends much further. Here are seven fascinating facts about him.
He had many names.
Paul’s birth name was Lester William Polsfuss, but he didn’t use it for long. As a teen he performed as Red Hot Red, and he recorded his first two albums as Rhubarb Red, a hillbilly admirer of gypsy-swing king Django Reinhardt. Announcers introduced him as the Wizard of Waukesha until his death in 2009.
He was Mary Ford’s husband and Steve Miller’s godfather.
Ford, a singer, and Paul performed together, and ended up eventually getting hitched. Paul played guitar on many of the pair’s biggest hits, including “Vaya Con Dios” and “How High the Moon.” Miller’s parents were best man and maid of honor at the couple’s wedding. Paul later gave the “Abracadabra” singer his first guitar lessons.
But, he couldn’t read music.
Paul had little formal training as a musician. He took a few piano lessons, which resulted in a note to his mom from his teacher that read, “Your boy, Lester, will never learn music.” He later taught himself guitar, banjo and harmonica, absorbing musical knowledge as he listened to the radio.
He hacked the family player piano as a kid.
A budding inventor, young Paul modified his family’s player piano so it produced new sounds. He also cut apart a section of their staircase so he could “tune” it when he played it like a xylophone. Later he made a crystal radio receiver and built a recording device from scraps at his dad’s auto shop. Roughly two decades later, Paul unveiled many recording innovations on “Lover,” a track featuring reverb, overdubbing, tape delay and other techniques recording studios still use today.
He survived several serious accidents, including near-electrocution.
Paul got a jolt in 1940, when experimenting in his New York apartment. During his recovery, he moved to Hollywood, where Bing Crosby encouraged him to build a proper recording studio. After a 1948 car accident, Paul told doctors to fuse his shattered elbow at a 90-degree angle so he could continue playing guitar.
Quick thinking landed him a job at NBC.
In 1937 the garrulous guitarist told two musician friends he knew Paul Whiteman, but when they showed up at big-band leader’s office, they were given the heave-ho. As they prepared to head out, another bandleader, Fred Waring, appeared by the elevator. Paul convinced him to check out the trio’s blistering tempo. They finished their impromptu tryout—and landed a job on Waring’s show—before the elevator arrived.
Gibson rejected Paul’s guitar prototype the first time he presented it.
One of the best-selling electric guitars of all time, the Gibson Les Paul counts George Harrison, Jimmy Page and Bob Marley among its devotees. But Gibson wasn’t keen on the instrument initially, calling it a “broomstick with pickups.” The company had a change of heart a decade later. It partnered with Paul to develop the first model in 1951, and the rest is history.
More of Les Paul: Museums that explore the legend’s legacy
Waukesha County Historical Society
Les Paul’s influence spans the world, but it’s especially strong in his birthplace. Waukesha has a road and a middle school named after Paul, and the Waukesha County Historical Society (101 W. Main St., Waukesha) goes even further. Its permanent exhibit “Les Paul: Wizard of Waukesha” showcases several of his guitars and pieces of recording equipment. It also shares birthday cards he and Mary Ford exchanged, a humorous homemade trophy he gave his mom on her 100th birthday, and a bomber jacket he wore during his standing gig at New York City’s Iridium. (The Historical Society is closed for renovation through December, and will reopen in January 2018.)
About 20 minutes away in Milwaukee, Discovery World (500 N. Harbor Drive) lets visitors experience Paul’s innovations by crafting new sounds, mixing music and sharing their creations. This exhibit, “Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience,” also features a crystal radio like the one Paul experimented with as a boy. There are even guitars from Paul’s personal collection, including the first Gibson Les Paul model ever produced.