about Mary Ford
Mary Ford, along with her husband Les Paul, were recording-artists royalty in the 1950s. The duo’s string of gold records kept them on the front page of magazines and featured in endless article and interviews. They were on radio and showcased on multiple TV shows.
But, first there was Iris Colleen Summers. That was Mary Ford’s birth name. Colleen was one of seven musical siblings whose father was a revival preacher.
In 1944, Colleen was backing up country singers as part of the Sunshine Girls trio. At the same time, Les Paul was living in Hollywood and looking for a female singer for his upcoming country music radio show. Eddie Dean and Gene Autry, who Les knew from Chicago, suggested he listen to the Sunshine Girls. Les was impressed and called Colleen to invite her to audition for his show. All of Collen’s friends knew she was a huge Les Paul fan. Surely, one of them was pulling a prank on her. Les and Colleen talked on the phone and agreed that she would come to Les’ studio for an audition, but she still was not convinced she was talking to the Les Paul she had heard so many times on the radio.
When the evening came for the audition, Les had forgotten about the arrangement. He was mowing his lawn in a checkered shirt, baggy army pants and his old army boots. He hadn’t even shaved. Colleen pulled up, “Can you tell me where the Les Paul studios are located?”
Iris Colleen Summers (AKA Mary Ford) sang country music in the mid-1940s on the NBC radio show Rhubarb Red (Les Paul) and the Ozark Apple Knockers featuring Mary Lou.
Not only did Mary have a magnificent voice, she was an accomplished guitarist.
She followed Les’ directions and walked toward the garage that Les and his friends had turned into a recording studio, with no door. The only way in was to climb through a window. As Colleen waited for Les, his two band members rehearsed with her. When Les crawled through the window, Colleen exclaimed, “That’s not Les Paul! That’s the gardener!” As she frantically looked for the exit. Les grabbed a guitar and let go with a couple of fast runs. Colleen stopped, “Oh my, you are Les Paul!”
The radio show was billed as Rhubarb Red and the Ozark Apple Knockers, featuring Mary Lou. No last name, just Mary Lou. That’s what Les called her, Mary Lou, which he soon shortened to Mary.
In January 1948, Les and Mary headed to Waukesha, Wisconsin to meet his family. Soon after they left California, Les did not feel well, but he continued to drive. All of Les’ family liked Mary and Les’ mother quickly became friends with Mary. Les said, that “was very important because they were the two most important people in my life.”
When Les and Mary traveled for live shows they took their recording equipment. Some of their hit records were made in hotel rooms.
mary ford & les paul videos
On the drive back to California, Les was feeling awful. Around St. Louis, Mary started driving. Mary had never driven in winter weather. Roads were covered with sleet, snow and ice. In Oklahoma as they slid off a bridge, Les instinctively put his right arm around Mary, to protect her face. They were thrown from their convertible, which landed upside down on a frozen riverbed. Because the area was rural with no traffic due to the storm, it was hours before they were found. Mary’s pelvis was broken, but she was not seriously injured. Les’ right elbow was shattered. His back, collarbones, a shoulder and six ribs were broken among other injuries.
Mary returned to California and went to work with Gene Autry. Les remained in the hospital for weeks and wondered if his career as a musician was over. When he finally returned to Hollywood, Mary took care of him. Les said, “I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.” It was also during this time Les recorded Mary’s first vocal for Capitol, a song he wrote called Until I Hold You Again.
In 1949, Les’ dad and brother opened The Club 400 in Waukesha and Les agreed to play for the opening night. He had asked his brother to find a bass player and guitar player for a trio. But when Les and Mary arrived, his brother hadn’t hired anyone. Les called his bass player buddy, Warren Downey, but there was no guitar player. Les turned to Mary, “I’ve got an extra guitar in the car. You’re my rhythm guitar player.” It took a lot to convince Mary to play for the first time with Les, especially in front of his friends and family, but she did. It was then that Les realized he had the singer he had been seeking.
From the late 1940s into the late 1950s, Les Paul and Mary Ford were recording hit record after hit record.
Les relayed that Mary had terrible stage fright, but the audience never saw it. Les is playing the guitar he called Klunker #1. Mary has Klunker#2.
Colleen needed a stage name. Les grabbed a Milwaukee phone book, “We’re going to pick a name for you, and it’s not going to be Mary Lou.” They settled on “Mary Ford.” Mary and Les returned to Hollywood to do their radio show and make recordings.
In early 1949, Mary and Les headed to Chicago for an extended performance at a top jazz club. Les was sure he could create sound-on-sound by adding a playback head to the new Ampex tape recorder. Mary was not confident it would work. She kept saying, “Oh no, it’ll never work.” Les kept saying, “It’s gonna work, it’s gonna be great.”
With the new head installed, Les recorded Mary saying, “One, two, three, four; one, two, three, four.” Then he rewound and recorded again while Mary said, “Hello, hello, hello.” When he played it back, they heard, “One, two, three, four, hello, hello, hello.” They had sound on sound using the tape recorder!
They packed the Chicago club every night and left feeling confident about their act. They toured their way to New York where they continued to make recordings and do their radio show in their small basement apartment in Jackson Heights.
When Les wanted to record Mockin’ Bird Hill, Mary said it was an awful song and she wanted no part of it. As usual, Les persuaded Mary to record it and it soared to the top of the charts. When they were on Bing Crosby’s national radio show, Bing sang harmony on Mockin’ Bird Hill with Mary. That confirmed her arrival as a major talent.
In early December, they headed to Milwaukee to play an extended stay at Jimmy Fazio’s supper club. Mary and Les experimented with different arrangements and new songs. Among their regular audience were George and Bertha Miller, who would bring their young son Steve, the same Steve Miller who grew into the great guitarist and recording artist. On December 29, 1949, Les and Mary got married in the Milwaukee County Courthouse with George and Bertha Miller as their witnesses.
Back in California, Les made recordings in the garage. Mary’s sister Carol started spending more time at Les and Mary’s house. At the same time, Les’ friend Wally Kamin became the new bass player. Soon Wally and Carol paired up. The four left California for the Midwest, then on to New York.
After Carol and Wally got married, the four were a team on the road and at home. Carol and Mary were happy to be working together. Carol sang harmony offstage when Les and Mary were playing at clubs.
Mary and Les constantly visited radio stations as they drove between venues. They would walk into a station, introduce themselves and go right on the air with the disk jockey. They would talk about their records, where they were going to be playing, kid with the deejay and promote the radio station.
The first time Mary and Les played their guitars together in public was at Waukesha’s Club 400 that Les’ brother and father owned. Les’ buddy Warren Downey played bass.
The pair had seven big hits in 1951and eight more in 1952. Les and Mary traveled constantly and turned out one hit after another from hotel rooms, basements and resorts. They sold millions of records and were a major factor in establishing Capitol as one of the driving force labels. The radio industry named Mary and Les the number one recording act. They became so popular that they could not get away from fans, which became unbearable at times for Mary.
Les Paul was always looking for the room that had just the right sound. Mary sang their hit “How High the Moon” in a basement.
Listerine offered to sponsor Mary and Les on a television show but they wanted the duo to live closer to the New York headquarters. In 1952, Mary and Les bought a house in the Ramapo Mountain area of New Jersey. In October 1953, The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show debuted on television with five five-minute shows a week. The show, which was broadcasted from their home, might show Mary in the kitchen or looking at a magazine. Les always had one of his Gibson guitars. A scripted short story line tied two songs together.
In 1954, Les and Mary were thrilled that Mary was pregnant. The premature little girl died four days after being born, which devastated Mary and Les. In 1958, the couple adopted a little girl they called Colleen. The next year Mary gave birth to their son Bobby.
Les constantly pushed everyone to keep going, but Mary wanted to stop performing. Les wouldn’t give up. In 1964, their divorce was finalized. Mary married Donald Hatfield. She tried various comeback acts, but in the end she succumbed to diabetes and died in 1977 at the age of 53.
Mary’s mesmerizing voice coupled with Les’ genius guitar playing and recording wizardry shot the duo to the top of the charts.
Les and Mary received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960.
Les and Mary are in the main recording studio in their Mahwah, NJ home.