Wisconsin native Les Paul, 89, father of the electrical guitar, may be the coolest guy in rock
Les Paul played his first pro gig on guitar and harmonica under the name Red Hot Red. "Years before that, workers were digging a sewer near our house and, when they broke for lunch, one of them played harmonica. I jumped off the porch because I loved the sound. The guitar came about later."

Guitarist and music pioneer Les Paul, 89, returns to the state on Wednesday to receive a lifetime achievement award in Madison from the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music.

Don’t be fooled by his age.

Paul still jams, especially during two popular gigs each week at a New York club.

As a result, the Waukesha native continues to expand his legend. Dubbed “the father of the electric guitar,” he will accept the award at Monona Terrace. It’s his first visit to Wisconsin since 1989 and his first to Madison since the late 1930s.

Follow along with Paul’s life as he discussed his remarkable timeline in an interview last week:

June 9, 1915: Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha.

“My mother didn’t like our last name. I grew up and got used to it. But every time I saw my name a letter was missing. As I grew older, the name Les Paul became more comfortable to say. It was never given much thought.”

1927: Buys his first guitar at Sears.

1928: Plays first professional gig on guitar and harmonica under the name Red Hot Red.

“Years before that, workers were digging a sewer near our house and when they broke for lunch one of them played harmonica. I jumped off the porch because I loved the sound of that harmonica and he gave it to me. The guitar came about later after a process of elimination. My mother didn’t want drums in the house.”

1933: Moves to Chicago to expand his career.

“I was told I could make $8. I thought they meant $8 a week so I hesitated. They raised it to $12. It turned out to be $12 a night.”

1936: Forms three-person band.

1939: Performs at the White House for President Roosevelt.

“We don’t have pictures from that. I know there are pictures somewhere. It was for his birthday. After the big party, he asked us to play at a private party afterward.”

1941: Constructs his solid-body electric guitar.

1945: Gene Autry introduces him to Colleen Summers (later named Mary Ford). They become music partners and get married in 1949.

“I was in Hollywood to do nine shows of country music. I told Gene I need a girl singer to help the show. He said, ‘Well, I have a trio of singers and one is very talented but shy.’ Gene gave me her phone number and I called her. She had told someone her favorite guitar player was Les Paul and she thought someone was joking with her when I called.”

1946: Plays backup guitar for the Andrews Sisters.

1948: Suffers near-fatal car crash on Route 66 in Oklahoma.

1950: Starts design of Les Paul model with Gibson Guitars. It becomes the world’s best-selling line of electric guitars.

“I thought it would be become popular. I worked many, many years on it. I loved the guitar so much so I’m biased, but, yes, I thought it would be a No. 1 instrument.”

1951: With Ford records No. 1 song “How High the Moon.”

1953: With Ford records No. 1 song “Vaya Con Dios.”

1953-1960: “The Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home Show” airs on TV.

“I wrote the show, performed on it and put together 1,100 pounds of equipment to reproduce the sounds of our recordings.”

1956: Performs at the White House for President Eisenhower.

1961: Paul and Ford record their last Top 40 hit.

1963: Paul and Ford divorce.

1971: Performs concert at Carnegie Hall.

“That show was with Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Oh, my goodness. Those were very important days.”

1976: Wins Grammy Award with Chet Atkins for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

“When Chet called me, he said he would play the violin and sing and I would play banjo and the harmonica. The first night in Nashville when we recorded, we both thought it sounded awful. I said, ‘Why don’t we do what we’re known for: You play your guitar and I’ll play mine.’ ”

1977: Performs concert in New Jersey that becomes part of his video “The Wizard of Waukesha.”

1980: Undergoes quintuple bypass heart surgery.

“This surgery was new then. Now everybody gets it. I was a lucky man. Some higher power made it possible.”

1988: Enters Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame with Jeff Beck inducting him. Other inductees this year include the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Berry Gordy, Jr.

Present: Continues two-decade-plus tradition of performing two weekly shows on Monday nights at Iridium Jazz Club in New York. Among those who have joined him are Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Tony Bennett, Steve Miller and Jeff Beck.

“After my heart surgery, the doctor said to work hard to keep alive. I had retired from playing the guitar. I thought, ‘I’ll find a little joint where there’s no pressure and play.’ I went to a tiny club and the owner said, ‘You want to play here?’ I said that I’d like to play on Mondays. He said, ‘We’re not open Mondays.’ I said, ‘I’ll work for nothing.’ He said smiling, ‘We’re open on Mondays.’ “

Leave a Reply