Celebrating Mary Ford – One Hundred Years of a Musical Legacy

Excerpts from an Interview with Gene Paul and Colleen Wess – Mary Ford Would Have Turned 100 Years Old on July 7, 2024.

New York, New York – “She was as close to perfection as you can get,” said Gene Paul, son of Les Paul, when asked to describe Mary Ford. As her 100th birthday approaches on July 7, 2024, it’s time to celebrate her remarkable contributions to the music industry. Her exceptional talent and innovative contributions will give pause to many as they realize how extraordinary she was both in life and her profession.

Born on July 7, 1924, in El Monte, California, Colleen Summers (aka Mary Ford) became an iconic figure in music. She was known for her exceptional talent and as the other half of the Les Paul & Mary Ford duo. Les Paul and Mary Ford performed worldwide and charted 18 top-ten hits in the 1950s. Ford’s personal life was closely intertwined with her professional career. The home was a hub of musical innovation where Les and Mary often experimented with new recording techniques and technologies. Les was frequently quoted as saying he was struck by Mary’s extraordinary vocal abilities but pleasantly surprised when he realized she could also play the guitar as skillfully as she did.

Born into a musical family, Mary performed with the family and eventually went solo, but her big break came when she met guitarist and inventor, Les Paul, in 1946. And, as if destiny was already playing a role, Mary’s guitar playing was influenced by the guitarist she always listened to on the popular Fred Waring radio shows—none other than Les Paul..

Gene Paul remembers his dad telling him about his ‘New Sound’ and his experiments in the garage studio in Hollywood, California. Dad also knew he needed an exceptional vocalist with perfect pitch like him to complete his ‘New Sound’ vision and showcase his Sound on Sound method of recording. This was Mary Ford.

While Les Paul is widely recognized as an innovative musician and inventor, Mary Ford’s contributions were equally significant as a pioneering female artist. Ford possessed an incredible vocal range and versatility. Les Paul’s close-miking recording technique gave Mary’s vocals an intimate, distinctive sound. Her ability to harmonize with herself through over-dubbing was a significant part of the duo’s signature sound. Known for her unique vocals, one cannot forget how accomplished she became as a guitar player. This was not an easy task considering who her partner was. Challenging the gender norms and stereotypes of the time, she played a 1961 Gibson SG Custom guitar, which she used extensively in performances and recordings with Les.

As pioneers, Mary Ford and Les Paul used Sound on Sound recording techniques that allowed them to layer multiple guitar and vocal tracks to create a fuller, richer sound. Ford’s immaculate and versatile vocal abilities provided a clear, melodic voice that perfectly complemented Les’ intricate guitar work. History can pay proper homage to Mary by recognizing how masterful she was in an era when female musicians were overlooked.

“I had a chance to see everything from the inside. Even on stage, Mary was impeccable. She would let Dad lead, and then she would fill in the blanks. She could keep up with Dad on the guitar and was completely comfortable with the instrument. It was remarkable to witness,” said Gene Paul.

Mary’s collaboration with Les produced hits including “How High the Moon,” “Vaya Con Dios,” and “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” among many others. Together, they created a unique sound that blended elements of jazz, pop, and country music.

Their recordings were characterized by artistic creativity, which set new standards for musical production during that era. Between 1950 and 1954, Les Paul and Mary Ford had chart-topping hits and were known at the time as the “Hit Makers.”

As a jazz standard with its up-tempo sound, “How High the Moon” was a be-pop favorite. Gene shared a fascinating story about the recording of Les and Mary’s version of the tune. Les and Mary started to record the hit song in a hotel room in Queens. There wasn’t any soundproofing in the room, and the noises from the room above and outside kept forcing them to re-do the song. The Sound on Sound technique did not allow for mistakes, which meant going back and recreating all the parts from the beginning each time. Ingeniously, Les put two blankets over Mary’s head for noise isolation. Les also put a mic in the bathroom and a speaker down the hall to create a room sound, which became a hallmark of their recordings. It took twelve vocal and twelve guitar parts to finish the master recording. When they brought the finished master to Capitol Records, the record company didn’t want to put it out. Only Les and Mary’s persistence finally got Capitol to release it, and as history shows, it was a mega-pop hit.

Gene Paul also recalled a time when “Dad would be in the studio working on a tune, and Mary would be in the kitchen preparing dinner. Dad would call Mary to add some vocal parts. She would take off her apron, step into the vocal booth, sing the lead vocal, add four harmony parts, and then go back to the kitchen—all in one take! That’s who Mary was.”

Les and Mary had their idols also. “One of Dad’s was Django Reinhardt, but many never knew who Mary’s idol was. It was Ella Fitzgerald. “I recall getting dressed and accompanying them to this huge room with a 15-piece orchestra. The same room in which we were due to perform the next night. I was around 16 years old. Out comes Ella Fitzgerald, who took Mary’s breath away. She never spoke a word until the end of Ella’s show. It was one of many special moments I experienced with Mary first-hand.”

Gene spent his career in the music industry as an audio engineer for many of the world’s most famous artists. When asked which artist was closest to Mary, Gene, without hesitation, chose Aretha Franklin. He stated that Aretha’s vocal range, perfect pitch, and ability to get the job done in one take—just like Mary did—were the reasons.

Many will agree that Mary’s work as a vocalist remains timeless. “How High the Moon” was a number-one hit for Les and Mary in 1951. It features Ford’s impressive vocal range and ability to harmonize with herself. Released in 1953, “Vaya Con Dios” was their biggest-selling hit, spending 11 weeks at number one on Billboard. “Tennessee Waltz,” the duo’s cover version of the Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart song, reached the top 10 in 1950 and showcased Ford’s country-influenced vocals and innovative use of Sound on Sound multi-layered recording. The 1954 hit “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” features Mary’s clear, expressive vocals and the inimitable chemistry of the two. The duo’s 1952 version of the jazz standard “Bye Bye Blues” highlighted Ford’s tremendous ability to swing and improvise vocally and her skill as a guitarist.

Colleen Wess, Les & Mary’s daughter, has fond memories of her mother. Some of her favorites include when Mary would pick her and her friends up from school, cooking “the best” pigs in the blanket in the world (a recipe Colleen still makes today), and how much Mary loved to tell a joke. “My mom would call her sister Carol about a joke and they would be on the phone for hours. My mom had a great sense of humor,” she said. “How High the Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios” still serve as Colleen’s favorite musical tunes of her mothers.”

Mary Ford’s influence extends beyond her lifetime, inspiring multiple generations of female vocalists and guitarists, including KD Lang, Sheryl Crow, Karen Carpenter and Kim Gordon. She revolutionized music and should be recognized more definitively by the music industry. Her pioneering work using Sound on Sound multi-layered recording, close mic techniques, and her extraordinary chart success paved the way for future generations. She also starred alongside Les in the first reality television show, bringing their music and influence into living rooms nationwide.

Les Paul was as demanding of his partner as he was of himself.  He found his musical equal in Mary Ford and together they dramatically influenced the future of music.
The Les Paul Foundation will celebrate Mary Ford’s 100th birthday with exclusive videos, interviews with contemporary females in the music industry, rare photos, and a curated playlist of her greatest hits.

Had Mary Ford lived another 100 years, one can only imagine what other remarkable accomplishments she would have made and how her legacy would have influenced so many.

Hi-res images available by emailing caroline@m2mpr.com

Visit the official Les Paul website to find out more about Mary Ford and her many contributions to music at les-paul.com to explore her legacy and join the celebration.

Caroline Galloway