Les Paul & Mary Ford, the Golden Duo1945 - 1963
It was the mid-1940s, Les was living in Hollywood and performing regularly on NBC radio and he had just agreed to recreate his Rhubarb Red country act he had used in St. Louis and Chicago. Les had his trio and the songs, but he wanted a female singer. As Les was pondering this, he ran into a friend from his Chicago radio days. It was Gene Autry. When the singing cowboy decided to move to California in the mid-1930s, Les took his place at WLS.
When Les shared with Gene that he was looking for a female singer, Gene told Les to step inside the studio to see the Sunshine Girls trio. “Watch the one in the middle”, he told Les. It was Colleen Summers and Les was impressed.
Les called Colleen the next day and was amused when she responded, “Not the Les Paul.” It turns out Colleen was a huge fan.
Les invited Colleen to audition at his home studio. As Les was cutting his lawn, dressed in baggy pants and an old shirt, Colleen pulled into the driveway and asked where the Les Paul Studio was. “Just go to the end of the driveway,” Les responded. However, he didn’t let on who he was.
Les had boarded up the overhead door and the side door of his garage to create his recording studio. The only way in was to climb through the garage window. Les’ buddies lifted Colleen into the studio and assured her that Les would be there soon. When Les entered the control room, Colleen insisted he was the gardener. It was only after Les grabbed his guitar and played that she was convinced. Her audition went well and so began a whole new chapter.
As the “Rhubarb Red and the Ozark Apple Knockers with Mary Lou” mix of hillbilly music and comic banter continued, the rapture between Les and Colleen (Mary Lou) grew.
A few years later, Les’ father George and brother Ralph were planning the grand opening of their bar, The Club 400 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Les agreed to play for the opening if Ralph would get a rhythm guitar player and a bass player. To Les’ dismay, Ralph neglected to get any musicians. With intense cajoling, Les convinced Mary, who was an excellent guitar player, to play with him in front of the hometown crowd. That was the first time Les and Mary played their guitars together in public.
On the way home from Waukesha, Les was not feeling well. It was January and the roads were ice covered. Mary, who only had lived in Southern California, was driving. Les said he was lying on the front seat of the car when Mary’s scream bolted him up to see they were headed over the side of a bridge. Hours later, the two were found lying on the frozen river. Mary’s injuries were minor, but Les nearly died twice as he dealt with his numerous broken bones. His right elbow was shattered and his arm was badly damaged. His recovery took 18 months. Les spent this time planning his future. When he finally got back to California, Mary was there to help him.
In the 1950s, entertainers often used easy-to-pronounce stage names. Early in their relationship, Les decided Colleen needed a name that flowed better with his. Both liked “Mary” that she had been using for their radio show. Paging through a phone book, Les said, “How about ‘Ford’? Mary Ford?” Colleen replied, “Whatever you think, Les.”
Just prior to the accident Les had introduced his New Sound highlighting his recording developments including multi-track, echo, phase-shifting and close miking. Les was convinced that his guitar playing combined with Mary’s singing and his New Sound would carry the duo to the top of the charts.
Les had seen the future and he set about to build it. The golden duo cranked out hit after hit:“Vaya Con Dios” was their best selling recording, but their signature song was “How High the Moon.” Les relayed how they tried different versions of “How High the Moon” in front of live audiences. Les studied the audiences’ reactions until he knew which version to record. The sales proved he was right.
Amid frenzied recording sessions, cross-country drives to their performances, and frequent visits to radio stations, Les and Mary stopped long enough to get married on December 29, 1949 in the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) County Court House.
They had their own radio show with NBC. Once Les added a second tape head to his Ampex tape recorder the duo was free to record their shows as they traveled to entertain their fans. For their recordings, Mary arranged and sang all of the vocals while Les played the many layers of his guitar and added his recording wizardry. During live performances, Mary would play her guitar with Les as she sang.
Les was always listening for sounds he could get in various rooms. He and Mary recorded in the kitchen, basement, living room, hotel rooms, hallways, closets, and just about any place where Les could get the sound he wanted for a particular song.
In the early 1950s, Les Paul and Mary Ford were on top of the charts. Listerine suggested one of America’s first reality TV shows, “Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home,” but they wanted the couple to be closer to the New York corporate headquarters. The twosome moved to Mahwah, New Jersey where the popular TV Show was filmed in their home. Les said the five-minute shows aired five times a day, five days a week.
In 1952, Gibson fulfilled Les’ 10-year dream by building a solid body electric guitar. The bold sound of the guitar that bore Les’ name brought about Rock and Roll, a sound very different from that of Les Paul and Mary Ford. By the 1960s, audiences had moved onto that new sound, one fostered by Les’ recording and guitar inventions, but one that left Les and Mary off the charts.
Today’s leading recording artists know that their sound is built on the genius inventions of the Wizard of Waukesha and his stellar performances with wife Mary Ford.