Les Paul has had such a staggeringly huge influence over the way American popular music sounds today that many tend to overlook his significant impact upon the jazz world. Before his attention was diverted toward recording multi-layered hits for the pop market, he made his name as a brilliant jazz guitarist whose exposure on coast-to-coast radio programs guaranteed a wide audience of susceptible young musicians. Heavily influenced by Django Reinhardt at first, Paul eventually developed an astonishingly fluid, hard-swinging style of his own, one that featured extremely rapid runs, fluttered and repeated single notes, and chunking rhythm support, mixing in country & western licks and humorous crowd-pleasing effects.
No doubt his brassy style gave critics a bad time, but the gregarious, garrulous Paul didn't much care; he was bent on showing his audiences a good time. Though he couldn't read music, Paul had a magnificent ear and innate sense of structure, conceiving complete arrangements entirely in his head before he set them down track by track on disc or tape. Even on his many pop hits for Capitol in the late '40s and early '50s, one can always hear a jazz sensibility at work in the rapid lead solo lines and bluesy bent notes - and no one could close a record as suavely as Les. And of course, his early use of the electric guitar and pioneering experiments with multitrack recording, guitar design and electronic effects devices have filtered down to countless jazz musicians. Among the jazzers who acknowledge his influence are George Benson, Al DiMeola, Stanley Jordan (whose neck-tapping sound is very reminiscent of Paul's records), Pat Martino and Bucky Pizzarelli.
Paul's interest in music began when he took up the harmonica at age eight, inspired by a Waukesha ditchdigger. Paul's only formal training consisted of a few unsuccessful piano lessons as a child - and although he later took up the piano again professionally, exposure to a few Art Tatum records put an end to that. After a fling with the banjo, Paul took up the guitar under the influences of Nick Lucas, Eddie Lang and regional players like Pie Plant Pete and Sunny Joe Wolverton, who gave Les the stage name Rhubarb Red. At 17, Les played with Rube Tronson's Cowboys and then dropped out of high school to join Wolverton's radio band in St. Louis on KMOX. By 1934, he was in Chicago, and before long, he took on a dual radio persona, doing a hillbilly act as Rhubarb Red and playing jazz as Les Paul, often with an imitation Django Reinhardt quartet. His first records in 1936 were issued on the Montgomery Ward label as Rhubarb Red and on Decca backing blues shouter Georgia White on acoustic guitar. Dissatisfied with the electric guitars circulating in the mid-'30s, Paul, assisted by tech-minded friends, began experimenting with designs of his own.
By 1937, Paul had formed a trio, and the following year, he moved to New York and landed a featured spot with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, which gave Les nationwide exposure through its broadcasts. That job ended in 1941 shortly after he was nearly electrocuted in an accident during a jam session in his Queens basement. After a long recovery period and more radio jobs, Paul moved to Hollywood in 1943, where he formed a new trio that made several V-Discs and transcriptions for MacGregor (some available on Laserlight). As a last-minute substitute for Oscar Moore, Paul played in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles on July 2, 1944; his witty chase sequence with Nat Cole on "Blues" and fleet work elsewhere (now on Verve's Jazz at the Philharmonic: The First Concert) are the most indelible reminders of his prowess as a jazzman. Later that year, Paul hooked up with Bing Crosby, who featured the Trio on his radio show, sponsored Les' recording experiments, and recorded six sides with him, including a 1945 number one hit, "It's Been a Long, Long Time." On his own, Paul also made several records with his Trio for Decca from 1944 to 1947, including jazz, country and Hawaiian sides, and backed singers like Dick Haymes, Helen Forrest and the Andrews Sisters.
Meanwhile, in 1947, after experimenting in his garage studio and discarding some 500 test discs, Paul came up with a kooky version of "Lover" for eight electric guitars, all played by himself with dizzying multi-speed effects. He talked Capitol Records into releasing this futuristic disc, which became a hit the following year. Alas, a bad automobile accident in Oklahoma in January 1948 put Les out of action again for a year and a half; as an alternative to amputation, his right arm had to be set at a permanent right angle suitable for guitar playing. After his recovery, he teamed up with his soon-to-be second wife, a young country singer/guitarist named Colleen Summers whom he renamed Mary Ford, and reeled off a long string of spectacular multi-layered pop discs for Capitol, making smash hits out of jazz standards like "How High the Moon" and "Tiger Rag." The hits ran out suddenly in 1955, and not even a Mitch Miller-promoted stint at Columbia from 1958 to 1963 could get the streak going again. After a bitter divorce from Ford in 1964, a gig in Tokyo the following year, and an LP of mostly remakes for London in 1967, Paul went into semi-retirement from music.
Aside from a pair of wonderfully relaxed country/jazz albums with Chet Atkins for RCA in 1976 and 1978, and a blazing duet with DiMeola on "Spanish Eyes" from the latter's 1980 Splendido Hotel CD, Paul has been long absent from the record scene (some rumored sessions for Epic in the '90s have not materialized). However, a 1991 four-CD retrospective, The Legend and the Legacy, contained an entire disc of 34 unreleased tracks, including a breathtaking electrified tribute to the Benny Goodman Sextet, "Cookin'." More significantly, Paul began a regular series of Monday night appearances at New York's Fat Tuesday's club in 1984 (from 1996, Les held court at the Iridium club across from Lincoln Center), attended by visiting celebrities and fans for whom he became an icon in the '80s. Arthritis has slowed Les' playing down in recent years, and his repertoire is largely unchanged from the '30s and '40s. But at any given gig, one can still learn a lot from the Wizard of Waukesha.