Les Paul was often called rock royalty, but for the people who knew the man before his death Thursday at age 94, that term often inspired a gentle chuckle.
Born in Wisconsin in 1915, Paul was a Midwestern jazz man who went on to make high-polish 1950s pop recordings, a style of music that was snuffed out by the reckless energy of rock 'n' roll. Still, the rock demi-gods of the 1960s and '70s adored Paul for what he handed them, the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, a beast of an instrument that has endured through the years whether the band on stage was Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols or Green Day. The six-string became such an American institution that, like Levi Strauss, Jack Daniel's and John Deere, it became more a symbol than a mere brand name.
Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen and Slash are just some of the players who have raised and praised the guitar during their careers. Richards, of the Rolling Stones, said Thursday that "all of us owe an unimaginable debt to his work and his talent," while Joe Satriani, whose searing solos sound like cosmic noise compared with Paul's vinyl hits, put the nonagenarian's passing in terms that even the youngest music fan could understand: "He was the original guitar hero."
Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in New York, according to a spokesperson for Gibson Guitar Co. Paul had been in failing health for some time, but he had soldiered on, amazingly, with his weekly Monday night performances at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City until earlier this year.
James Henke, the chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, went to a show in May and, backstage, it was apparent that Paul was ailing. "But he still played two shows that night and sounded great," he said.
Paul's legacy is a broad one. Part artist, part inventor, Paul was "that rare person who was artistic and scientific at the same time," as Henke put it. Paul was a master picker, one of the best of his generation, and was often cited as a major influence on other more famous guitarists, including Chet Atkins, who called Paul "one of my idols."
Still, it is Paul's innovations that put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They include an early solid-body electric guitar as well as new ways to create multiple tracks and echo effects for recordings, which he applied with memorable effect to his recordings with his then-wife Mary Ford. Through the years, the guitars with Paul's name on them became so popular that he was routinely -- and wrongly -- cited as the inventor of the electric guitar, an error that spoke to the ubiquity of his brand.
"When most people think of the electric guitar, they think of Les Paul," said Dan Del Fiorentino, historian for the National Assn. of Music Merchants, a trade group for the music-products industry. "He wasn't the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, but he certainly made it famous."
Well-known pioneers were looking to amplify a guitar as early as the 1920s, among them Doc Kauffman, Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp, whose "Frying Pan" is considered the first solid-body electric guitar. None of those names would become as famous as Les Paul, who was born Lester William Polfuss on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wis.
Always curious, Paul would tinker with his mother's upright player piano, re-punching the piano roll to make new notes. By 9, he had taught himself the harmonica by listening to earthy blues and country hits on the family radio.
His first guitar was a model from Sears, Roebuck & Co. that captured his imagination, and by his late teens he had dropped out of school to pursue music.
That path led to Chicago. During the day, he would play country music using the name Rhubarb Red; at night he would jam in the jazz clubs with a more enduring moniker, Les Paul, with Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt as part of his style heritage.
Paul crafted his own crude version of an amplified guitar as a teenager. His goal was simply to be better heard. To amplify the sound, he tried using a phonograph needle, a telephone mouthpiece and a radio speaker. The sound did get stronger, but, as Paul would recollect in Modern Guitar magazine in 2005, "I ran smack into the problem of feedback."
He realized that the acoustic guitar's hollow body -- which was designed to reverberate and amplify the string sound -- probably wasn't needed if the instrument was hooked up to power. He filled the hollow with socks and shirts and even plaster of Paris, which, not surprisingly, created some problems.