Les Paul, the legendary American musician and inventor who changed the course of music with his solid-body electric guitar, multi-track recording and a string of pop and jazz hits, died 13 August in New York of complications from pneumonia. The man known as "the Thomas Edison of the music industry" was 94. In 2007, the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee spoke with VOA's Kane Farabaugh, who prepared this appreciation.
Born in the small midwestern town of Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Les Paul showed an early interest in musical instruments and electronic devices. As a young boy, he experimented with sound waves and even created his own radio.
He would listen to variety shows on that radio broadcast from Chicago and as far away as Pittsburgh. The broadcasts inspired him to seek a career on the road as a musician.
When radio in the United States was king, Les Paul was in his prime. Performing by day with some of the biggest bands of the era, he spent nights learning music with some of the biggest names in the Harlem section of New York City.
"And that was jazz. And so I would go up there and sit with Lester Young, and listen to him, Dizzy Gillespie, anybody you wish to name, Art Tatum - all the greats," he said.
Paul became a household name as leader of the Les Paul Trio, often playing on the radio networks that broadcast his music into homes across the country.
"I didn't realize that I was a pioneer," he said. "I did realize that the particular thing I was looking for was not available.
Paul says he wanted a guitar that he could play with a band or an orchestra without being drowned out by all the other instruments. He needed a LOUD guitar.
Les Paul's inner inventor took over. Using a piece of railroad steel and telephone wires, he created an electric guitar with a uniquely dynamic electronic voice. It was the prototype of what is now one of the most widely-used instruments on the planet - the solid-body electric guitar.
"To my amazement there are so many today versus the fact there was only one - I was the only guitar player in my home town, I was the only guy who could get out there and play the guitar and do anything with it," he said. "So yes, I was a pioneer then, but today, a guitarist has television, he has all types of recording devices. He can see, he can hear, he can learn from the best teachers in the world. And a guitar is the number one instrument in the world today. When I was a kid it was a piano."
The musical instrument company Gibson liked Paul's solid-body electric guitar, and began manufacturing and selling it to some of the top musicians of the day. The Gibson Les Paul continues to be a top seller and the preferred instrument of many musicians.
Les Paul was not only a pioneer in the way music was played, but also how it was heard.
"My electronics were one half of my life, and the other half of my life was music and they finally married each other," he said. "You needed both of them to do what happened.
Tinkering in his home recording studio, Les Paul decided to combine recordings of different guitar sounds, blending in the voice of his wife at the time, singer Mary Ford. He also experimented with playing tracks at different speeds and pitch and playing them back simultaneously. The method, called multi-track recording, created a sound that came to define pop music in the 1960s. It continues to be a staple in sound recording today.
Les Paul was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1988. Many of his musical inventions are part of a collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
Meanwhile, the town of Waukesha, Wisconsin, is currently planning a permanent exhibit honoring its most famous citizen. The Les Paul Experience is scheduled to open there in 2010.