timeline

This timeline provides only some highlights of Les Paul’s illustrious, almost century-long career.

Q

1915

  • Lester William Polsfuss is born June 9 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to George and Evelyn Polsfuss. (Lester’s mother changed spelling of their last name, but Lester never legally changed his name.)

1915

Q

1920s

  • Punches new holes into his mother’s player piano rolls, creating multi-track effect.

  • Receives first harmonica from a ditch-digger.

  • Builds crystal radio set and learns about sound electronics from WTMJ radio engineer.

  • Receives first guitar, a Sears, Roebuck Troubadour.

  • Invents flip-able harmonica holder so he can play both sides while playing guitar.

  • Meets idols Gene Autry and Pie Plant Pete when they tour with Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance shows.

  • Experiments with amplifying and electrifying his guitar at Beekman’s Bar-B-Q where he performs for tips.

  • Attempts first solid-body electric guitar by filling his acoustic guitar with Plaster of Paris.

  • Stretches guitar string over a section of train rail, adds telephone microphone as pickup and amplifies it

  • Builds first disc-cutting lathe with Cadillac flywheel, dental belts and nail.

1920s

Q

1930s

Early 1930s

  • Meets mentor Sunny Joe Wolverton.

  • Plays on Milwaukee area radio stations with Sunny Joe Wolverton.

  • Great Depression leaves many without jobs.

  • Sunny Joe and Rhubarb Red perform for hillbilly radio stations in St. Louis and Springfield, MO.

  • Starts to play electric guitar.

  • Rhubarb Red and Sunny Joe move to Chicago. Perform on WBBM radio and at World’s Fair.

  • Jams with jazz greats on Chicago’s Southside as Les Paul at night.

  • Does jazz show with organ and guitar on WIND radio; plays jazz on WJJD radio.

  • For short time, plays piano instead of guitar.

  • Converts Bell & Howell movie speaker into guitar amplifier.

  • Forms first Les Paul Trio with Ernie Newton and Jimmie Atkins (Chet Atkin’s half-brother).

1936

  • Makes first professional recordings as Rhubarb Red on Montgomery Ward’s record label.

  • Records 20 sides on Decca with blues singer Georgia White.

  • Continues to experiment with designing solid-body electric guitar.

  • Performs on several Chicago radio stations with various hillbilly bands.

  • Records first sound-on-sound.

1938

  • Moves to New York and joins Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians on NBC radio.

  • Installs two pickups on his hollow body electric guitar for first time.

1939

  • Plays electric guitar on Waring’s national radio show. No one else is playing electric guitars on radio.

  • Performs in White House concert for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

  • Uses Philco radio/record player to create pirate radio station in basement of his NYC apartment.

  • Cuts first commercial records with trio, doing four sides for Columbia.

  • Appears in Gibson’s catalog with a Super 400 guitar.

1930s

Q

1940s

1941

  • Builds the “Log” in NYC Epiphone factory where he is allowed access on Sundays.

  • Gibson executives laugh at Les’ suggestion to build a solid-body electric guitar.

  • Performs and records with his “Klunker,” an Epiphone hollow body with super-hot pickups.

  • Suffers extreme electric shock, resulting in severe burns to his hands and weeks in the hospital.

  • Trio splits.

  • Moves back to Chicago. Becomes music director for WIND and WJJD.

1942

  • Builds headless guitar from sheet of aluminum.

1943

  • Moves to Los Angeles to team with Bing Crosby.

  • New Les Paul Trio is hired by NBC radio.

  • Drafted into Armed Forces Radio Service, where he creates V-Disc recordings AFRS radio shows, does transcriptions and learns about recording.

1944

  • Performs with Nat Cole at first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles, jazz’s most famous jam sessions.

1945

  • Plays guitar on Bing Crosby’s post-war hit “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”.

  • Converts Hollywood garage into cutting-edge recording studio to record the stars.

  • Plays guitar in several movies.

  • Gene Autry introduces Iris Colleen Summers (Mary Ford) to Les.

  • Revives Rhubarb Red persona for hillbilly radio shows with Mary.

1946

  • Trio tours U.S. with Andrew Sisters.

  • Les’ mother complains that every guitar player sounds like Les.

  • Leaves Andrew Sisters tour. Returns to Hollywood garage studio.

  • Spends two years inventing revolutionary recording techniques to create his “New Sound.”

  • Makes first sound-on-sound commercial recordings using disks.

1947

  • Appears in movie, Sarge Goes to College.

  • Plays “Lover” for brand new recording company, Capitol Records.

  • Signs recording contract with Capitol.

1948

  • January 26 Les and Mary are in horrific car accident in Oklahoma during winter storm.

  • Doctors recommend amputating Les’ badly damaged right arm.

  • Persuades doctors to set arm so he can continue to play.

  • Capitol releases “Lover” and “Brazil”, Les’ first “New Sound” recordings with overdubbed guitars.

1949

  • Les and Mary play their guitars together for first time in public at opening of Waukesha’s Club 400, owned by Les’ dad and brother, George and Ralph Polsfuss.

  • Les chooses Mary’s stage name of “Ford” from Milwaukee phone book.

  • Bing Crosby commissions Ampex Corp. to produce first U.S. tape recorders. Gives first Ampex model to Les.

  • Orders additional recording head and invents Sound-on-Sound tape machine.

  • Hosts radio show, Les Paul at Home, which airs for 23 weeks.

  • Les and Mary are married December 29, 1949 in Milwaukee.

1940s

Q

1950s

1950

  • After nearly 10 years of Les trying to convince Gibson to build solid body electric guitars, company begins to design the electric guitar with input from Les.

  • Has three instrumental hits.

1951

  • Les and Mary have seven hits including “How High the Moon.” Sell six million records.

  • Les and Mary play London Palladium and Grand Ole Opry among countless venues.

  • Records popular jingle for Rheingold Beer.

  • Voted number one guitarist in country by Down Beat magazine.

  • Signs with Gibson.

1952

  • Les and Mary have eight hits.

  • Gibson introduces Les Paul solid-body electric guitar.

  • Gibson makes two mini-guitars for Les to use during live performances.

  • Move to Mahwah, New Jersey.

1953

  • Release of Les and Mary’s biggest hit, “Vaya Con Dios”.

  • Listerine sponsors Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home, 5-minute television shows (170 episodes) recorded in their Mahwah, NJ home.

  • Envisions 8-track tape recorder. Works with Ampex to refine and manufacture 8-track.

  • Explains sound-on-sound on TV with Alistair Cooke.

1955

  • Proposes use of light for recording sound as guest speaker at Audio Engineers Society convention.

  • Designs Capitol Records’ echo chambers and recording studios for iconic California building.

    1956

    • Debuts The Les Paulverizer, a remote-control attached to his guitar to manipulate taped accompaniments he and Mary use during White House concert for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    • Receives patent for Combined Bridge and Tail Piece for Stringed Instruments.

    1957

    • From 1947 to 1957 sells over 10 million records while with Capitol.

    • Ampex delivers first operational 8-track recorder to Les.

    • Capitol Records contract ends as rock and roll pushes Les and Mary off the charts.

    • Les and Mary sign with Mitch Miller at Columbia Records.

    1958

    • Inducted as honorary member of Audio Engineering Society.

    1950s

    Q

    1960s

    • Receives Hollywood Walk of Fame star with Mary Ford.

    • Receives patent for Electrical Musical Instrument, Les’ design for single magnetic pickup.

    • Les and Mary divorce.

    • Performs in Japan with son Gene.

    • Retires from performing.

    • Continues to experiment with pickup designs and other electronics.

    • Right eardrum breaks. Almost dies in surgery to repair ear. Needs additional surgeries on his ear.

    • Begins work on improving hearing aids.

    • Gives Gibson all his guitar drawings and guitar secrets.

    • Gibson produces Les Paul Recording Guitar incorporating Les’ design with low impedance pickups.

    1960s

    Q

    1970s

    • Receives patent for Method for Electronically Reproducing Music and Improved Electrical Pickup.

    • Capitol releases album of Les and Mary’s greatest hits.

    • Les and Bucky Pizzarelli play Town Hall in New York, appear on ABC and perform at Carnegie Hall.

    • Les’ left eardrum breaks. Additional surgeries result in permanent hearing impairment.

    • Emerges from retirement to record Chester & Lester with Chet Atkins.

    • Receives Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance for Chester and Lester.

    • Mary Ford dies September 30 in Los Angeles after lapsing into diabetic coma.

    • Records Chester & Lester and Guitar Monsters with Chet Atkins.

    • Receives Recording Academy’s Grammy Hall of Fame Award for “How High the Moon”.

    1970s

    Q

    1980s

    • Undergoes quintuple by-pass heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic.

    • Plays on TV concert series Rock ‘n’ Roll Tonight with Jeff Beck and others.

    • Receives Trustees Award from Recording Academy.

    • Launches regular Monday night gig with his trio in New York City at Fat Tuesdays. Performs until 1994.

    • Inducted into Hollywood Guitar Center’s Rock Walk of Fame.

    • Featured in Cinemax, Les Paul: He Changed the Music.

    • Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

    1980s

    Q

    1990s

    • Inducted into Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

    • Designs and builds sound diffusing wall for Studio 2 in Mahwah home.

    • TEC Hall of Fame inaugurates annual Les Paul Award. Les is first recipient.

    • Launches two Monday night gigs at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club. Performs until two months before he passes in 2009.

    • Inducted into New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame.

    • Receives John Smithson Bicentennial Medal from Smithsonian Institution.

    • Featured in popular Coors beer commercial: Young guitarist: “What’s your name?” Les replies: “It’s on your guitar.”

    1990s

    Q

    2000s

    2001

    • Awarded Technical Grammy by Recording Academy.

    2004

    • Receives Emmy Lifetime Achievement in Engineering.

    • Permanent exhibit opens at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

    2005

    • Celebrates 90th birthday with tribute concert at Carnegie Hall.

    • Inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame.

    • Receives Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from Songwriters Hall of Fame.

    • Receives Grammy award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Caravan”.

    • Receives second Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for ”69 Freedom Special”. Both recordings are from Les Paul & Friends (Capitol), his first new album in almost 30 years. Among Les’ musical partners for recording were: Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Buddy Guy.

    • Named Inventor of the Year by EQ Magazine.

    2007

    • Receives National Medal of Arts from U.S. President George W. Bush.

    • Release of documentary, Les Paul: Chasing Sound.

    • Plays sold out concert in his hometown of Waukesha, WI.

    2008

    • Receives American Music Masters Award from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

      Plays sold out concert in Milwaukee for opening of exhibit at Discovery World.

    2009

    • Named One of the Ten Best Electric Guitar Players of all Time by Time Magazine.

    • Receives Bravery in Radio Award from William Patterson University’s Brave New Radio Station for his 1950s’ radio shows.

    • Dies in White Plains, NY on August 12. Buried in Waukesha, WI.

    2000s

    Q

    2010s

    2010

    • Receives Honorary New York Emmy.

    • Receives Joe Meek Award for Innovation in Production from Music Producers Guild.

    • Inducted into New Jersey Hall of Fame.

    2011

    • Receives star on Nashville’s Walk of Fame.

    • Google creates iconic playable Google Doodle guitar to honor Les Paul’s 96th birthday.

    • Included among Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

    2018

    • Inducted as first person into Audio Engineering Society of Wisconsin’s Hall of Fame.

    2010s