les paul thru the lens

Lester "Les Paul" Polsfuss

Lester Polsfuss, who is best known as the legendary Les Paul, grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin with his brother Ralph and his mother Evelyn. This young man went on to become one of the most influential individuals in modern music. He was the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, multi-track recording, echo, over-dubbing and many other recording techniques that changed the face of music forever. This photo is of Les as a young boy in the early 1920s.

Les' Mom Evelyn

Les Paul’s mother Evelyn was a constant supporter. She encouraged him from an early age to stay curious. When Les’ brother Ralph complained, “The kid’s at it again,” Evelyn’s response was “Leave him alone. He needs to learn how things work.” Evelyn always taught Les to be independent. Les often credited her and Mary as being his greatest influences. Evelyn died at the age of 101 in 1989

“I did a lot of crazy, stupid things as a kid, but rather than scold me she took pride in the fact that I was thinking creatively and had the initiative to do something” – Les Paul in His Own Words

Red Hot Red

This photo of 13 year old Les as Red Hot Red was taken for his first professional performance. In the 1920s, commercial harmonica holders held the instruments in one position. About his first invention shown here in the photograph, Les said, “I made my own harmonica holder out of coat hanger wire and wood and mounted my harmonica on pivot points so I could flip it over with my chin” – Les Paul in His Own Words

4th of July Parade

Les had just turned 14 when he and his friends entered Waukesha’s 4th of July Parade as the “Red Hot Ragtime Band.” Here he is seen with other band members in front of the Junior Optimist parade float in 1928. Les Paul is fifth from the left holding a guitar and using a harmonica. The “Red Hot Ragtime Band” went on to win First Place in the parade. That’s a real floor mop on Les’ head!

Les' Family

Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford had a growing family in the mid-1950s. Here Les is holding Bobby. The other children are (l to r) Russ, Gene and Mary is holding Colleen. The photo was taken in Les and Mary’s Mahwah, New Jersey home in the mid-1950s.

The Log

Les was the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar which started in 1931 with a piece of discarded rail from a train track. Ten years later in 1941 Les built what he called the “Log.” The 4 x 4 piece of wood included homemade pickups, a crudely fashioned bridge and vibrato tailpiece. Paul wanted to create an electrically amplified guitar whose acoustical properties didn’t cause feedback. He wanted volume, tone and sustain that could be controlled. It took ten more years to convince Gibson to finally build the world famous guitar that bears his name.

Les’ Garage (Hollywood, California)

In the mid-1940s Les and his friends turned his garage into a recording studio, where he recorded not only his own performances, but also those of many top stars of the day. This is where Les created his industry-changing recording techniques . This photo includes the famous sound-on-sound tape recorder that changed everything in the music industry.

Les the Prankster

While working at Chicago’s WBBM radio station in the early 1940s, Les decided to play a trick on everyone in the control room. “I caught a common house fly, went to one of the main microphones they used on the air, opened up the housing, put the fly inside, and closed it back up. Then I just sat back and watched them go crazy trying to figure out where the buzzing was coming from. The fly would buzz around inside the mic and then rest for a couple of seconds, and the engineers were going nuts trying to find the cause. Watching them trying to identify the problem just struck me as very funny, and they never did figure it out until I finally told them.”
– Les Paul in His Own Words

Les Paul and Django Reinhardt

Les first heard jazz guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt on the radio in 1934 when he was in Chicago. In 1946 Les was playing at the Paramount Theatre in New York when Reinhardt made a surprise visit. Les always said that Django Reinhardt was the greatest guitar player.

“Django Reinhardt, the one musician I idolized, admired and respected above all others. I was very intrigued and impressed with the passion and technique of Django’s playing, and immediately did what I always do when I hear something I like; I started listening and figuring out what he was doing and making it mine.”
–Les Paul in His Own Words

Les and Bing Crosby

This photo shows Les Paul with Hollywood crooner Bing Crosby. Les became friends with Bing, who was a huge record, radio and motion picture star in the 1940s. It was Bing who gave Les one of the first Ampex tape recorders that Les converted to his industry-changing sound-on-sound machine. Les played his guitar for Bing’s huge World War II hit “It’s Been a Long Long Time” and also performed on Bing’s radio show in the mid-1940s.

Tiger Rag Promo

In January 1952, “Tiger Rag” hit the charts for Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford. It was one of the first recordings where Mary and Les used the new Gibson solid body electric guitars instead of the klunker guitars. Capitol Records arranged this publicity photo with a Hollywood tiger. Les relayed that Mary was terrified of the tiger.

The Ed Sullivan Show

In the 1950s, Les Paul and Mary Ford were in constant demand for performances in a variety of venues across the nation and in Europe. They were repeat guests on the most popular shows including Bing Crosby’s show in Hollywood, the Garroway show in Chicago, and the Ed Sullivan show in New York. They were playing somewhere almost every night as they drove back and forth across the country trying to meet the unbelievable demand for their act.

Les Was Always Working

Les constantly was building and improving equipment to support his recordings. Here he is working on the control panel for his 8-track recorder.

“I’ve been asked what was at the heart of everything I’ve done; was it music, was it recording or was it inventing? It was all of them together, but …. it was building the guitar and getting it to sound right that really drove me.” – Les Paul in His Own Words

Award Winner

In 1976 Les Paul and Chet Atkins won the Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy Award for “Chester & Lester.” Their Grammy Award was presented on stage by Dolly Parton and Freddie Fender. Les won numerous other awards in his lifetime including a Technical Grammy Award in 2002, The National Inventors Hall of Fame Award in 2006 and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 among many others.

“So we made the album, recording the chatter while we were doing it, and it was a hit. Everybody loved it, it sold great, and we both got a Grammy for it.”
–Les Paul in His Own Words

Mary sings. Les records.

Les Paul’s good friend and brother-in-law, Wally Kamin, sits in the background in the main recording space in Les’ house. In addition to having several recording studios in their home, Les and Mary recorded their “Les Paul & Mary Ford at Home” television series from their Mahwah home.

Steve Miller & Les

Les was Steve Miller’s godfather. When Les and Mary were married in 1949, Steve’s parents were the witnesses. Steve would often visit Les when he played at The Iridium in New York City on Monday nights where they would end up jamming on stage. Both Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees shared a very special relationship which lasted Les’ entire life.

The Les Paulverizer

In the early 1950s, to explain sound-on-sound to his radio audience, Les created a gag about an invention that would create multiples of him and Mary when they performed. In 1956, for live performances, he created a box with switches that attached to his guitar and he called it the Les Paulverizer. The buttons accessed tape recorders off stage that played back pre-recorded layers of Les’ guitar and Mary singing.

Music Icons: Jeff Beck, Les, Jimmy Page

In this photo as Jeff Beck looks on, Les is autographing Jimmy Page’s chest (founder of rock band Led Zeppelin) at Les’ 72nd birthday party at the Hard Rock Café NYC. Les often was seen with some of the world’s biggest musical stars as many revered him. Today some of the world’s most popular artists still credit Les Paul for their careers.

“The sounds Les made on his guitar, and what he did later with multi-tracking, were a revelation and completely excited every part of me,” Jeff Beck.

Les & Paul McCartney

It was 1988. Les presented Paul with a left-handed guitar.
“Les was one of the greatest innovators in recording techniques. The work he put into developing the guitar that was named after him made the instrument an all-time classic, and his incredible playing skills make him one of the masters of the instrument, “Paul McCartney.

Les Paul & Friends Tribute Concert in New York - 1988

Les was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 when Jeff Beck presented the award on stage to Les. Performing at the induction ceremony finale are (left to right) Carl Wilson, Les Paul, Jeff Beck, Dave Edmunds, Mick Jagger, George Harrison and Bob Dylan.

Les Paul & Slash

Among the many superstar friends in Les’ circle was Slash. The Guns n’ Roses guitarist and popular musician is one of the many examples of how Les influenced the modern music industry. Slash often showed up at The Iridium in New York on Monday nights to jam with Les.

“Alot of his (Les Paul) techniques are stuff we now use all the time: the muting, the fast picking. It was really innovative, especially for the time.” – Slash

Les Paul Trio

The Les Paul Trio was famous for Monday nights at The Iridium in New York City. Lou Pallo played with Les for 20 years, Frank Vignola and Nicki Parrot joined the Trio in 2001. This same trio played with Les up until his passing. In 2005. Les relayed

“Lou has been playing guitar with me … (for 20 years.) Frank and Nicki came along about four years ago and it’s like we’ve been playing together forever.”
— Les Paul in His Own Words

NYC’s Fat Tuesdays

Les Paul made his debut at New York City’s Fat Tuesday’s on a Monday night in early 1984, and the response was tremendous. What started out as a limited engagement turned into a standing date that lasted twelve years. Monday nights were never the same and when Fat Tuesday’s closed Les moved to The Iridium Jazz Club where he played two shows every Monday until two months before his passing.

To My Constant Friend

In August 2009, Les Paul passed away at the age of 94. His legacy lives on through The Les Paul Foundation which he created to help others find the joy in music.

“My guitar is such a pal. It’s a psychiatrist. It’s a doggone bartender. It’s a housewife. This guy is everything. Whenever I find that I’ve got a problem, I’ll go pick my guitar up and play. It’s the greatest pal in the whole world.”
—Les Paul

A Traveling Gallery Exhibit of Rare Photos Commemorating the Life of the Father of Modern Music Kicks Off This Month

Les Paul Thru the Lens will kick off on March 14 at the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York. From there it will travel across the country and back East later in the year. The 2022 schedule is as follows:

March 14-20, 2022  – Esther Massry Gallery located at Massry Center for the Arts at the College of Saint Rose, 1002 Madison Avenue in Albany, New York. The exhibit is free and open to the public from 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. daily. (https://www.strose.edu/…/esther-massry-gallery)

April 12-May 29, 2022 – Museum of Making Music located at 5790 Armada Drive in Carlsbad, California. The exhibit will be open Tuesday-Sunday from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and the exhibit is part of regular admission to the museum. (https://www.museumofmakingmusic.org)

June 3-5, 2022 – NAMM, National Association of Musical Instrument Manufacturers annual convention held at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California. The exhibit will be open to all attendees and registered guests for the duration of the convention during regular hours and will be held inside the Member Center.

 July 1- September 30, 2022 – Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum located at 401 Gay Street in Nashville, Tennessee. The exhibit will be held in the museum’s main lobby and entry is included in the museum’s regular admission. The hours are Monday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m – 5:00 p.m. (www.musicianshalloffame.com).

November 1, 2022 – December 20, 2022 – STAX Museum of American Soul Music located at 926 East McLemore in Memphis, Tennessee. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and the exhibit is included to the regular museum admission. (https://staxmuseum.com)

Additional venues will be announced throughout the year.