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Les Paul Dies at 94

Les Paul, inventor, guitarist and American icon, died yesterday at a White Plains, N.Y. hospital. The cause was pneumonia. He was 94.

Paul, born Lester William Polsfuss on June 19, 1915, in Waukesha, Wis., started his career as a child playing music in the streets with his guitar and harmonica. He played country music as a teen and eventually started playing jazz, all the while demonstrating a knack for technological innovation. In the early 1940s he attached strings and electronic pickups to a crude slab of wood and connected a guitar neck. Dubbed “The Log,” it was arguably the first solidbody electric guitar, an instrument that allowed for greater levels of amplification without feeding back and an unprecedented sustain of pitches. The Gibson company eventually tapped Paul to develop a solidbody model for mass production in the early ’50s, and it became, along with Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster, an archetypal electric guitar. The Gibson Les Paul has been favored by many of the most important blues, rock and jazz guitarists of all time, among them Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Kiss’ Ace Frehley, Freddie King, Hubert Sumlin, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, Gary Moore, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and even Paul McCartney. The guitar made Paul a wealthy man, but he never stopped trying to innovate.

Dave Berryman, the current president of Gibson Guitar, offered this statement about the colorful guitarist and inventor: “I don’t think any words can describe the man we know as Les Paul adequately. The English language does not contain words that can pay enough homage to someone like Les. As the ‘Father of the Electric Guitar,’ he was not only one of the world’s greatest innovators but a legend who created, inspired and contributed to the success of musicians around the world.”

Although Paul started his career as a country musician and his namesake guitar was a rock-and-roll staple, his ties to jazz were real and longstanding. (Some of his strongest influences as a player-Django Reinhardt, for one-were jazz greats.) He performed as a sideman with Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters and Nat King Cole. He became a famous performer himself as a result of his duets with his then-wife Mary Ford. The two had a string of hits in the ’40s and ’50s including “How High the Moon” and “Tennessee Waltz.” His records with Ford resulted in another of his remarkable innovations-the use of multi-track recording. Paul also invented tape echo, a guitar effect famously used by rockabilly architect Scotty Moore, Paul collaborator Chet Atkins and Jimmy Page.

For the last few decades, Paul played a regular Monday night show in New York City, first at Fat Tuesday’s and later at Iridium with a band that included bassist Nicki Parrott, who often was a foil for Paul’s trademark wit. Paul told JazzTimes‘ Russell Carlson in 2001 that he didn’t suffer non-playing fools gladly. “If you tell me you’re good and you get up here and you’re not, you’re gonna get the hook,” he explained. “We try to screen them out; people around me who I know, they’ll tell me, ‘This guy’s darn good,’ but once in a while one will slip in there, a brother-in-law, and we have to give him the hook!”

Joe Satriani, a popular guitar virtuoso (though one who isn’t associated with the Les Paul guitar), said in a statement, “Les Paul set a standard for musicianship and innovation that remains unsurpassed. He was the original guitar hero, and the kindest of souls. Last October I joined him onstage at the Iridium club in N.Y.C., and he was still shredding. He was and still is an inspiration to us all.” Paul was a recipient of numerous honors and awards, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy Hall of Fame and National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Paul is survived by his companion, Arlene Palmer, as well as two sons from his first marriage, a son and daughter from his second marriage to Ms. Ford, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Les Paul Foundation, 236 West 30th St., 7th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10001.

Originally Published