Les Paul strummed his way into hearts and history

If you’re from Waukesha, WI (where he was born) or Cleveland (where he has his own exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), you know the name Les Paul.

If you’re a real fan of contemporary music, you do, too. In his prime, Les Paul played with Bing Crosby, the Andrews sisters, Nat King Cole and Chet Atkins. His name hasn’t faded in musical circles. Rock stars who own and play Les Paul guitars include: Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and guitarists for a long list of bands from Aerosmith and KISS to Green Day,

If you don’t know Les Paul’s name, you should. I just heard his story on NPR, when the network re-ran an interview in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday on June 9.

Paul was a country singer, jazz player, guitarist, inventor and all around music genius.

All his life Paul was “torn between being commercial and playing jazz.” The latter preference was less lucrative. He formed the Les Paul Trio to “walk the middle of the road” and do both. Born in 1915, Paul died in 2009, at 94. Until then, he was unsinkable.

What hooked me, and what Godsigns readers will appreciate, was how he dealt with a near-fatal car accident in 1948 with the woman who would become his wife and co-star, Mary Ford. His right arm and elbow were shattered. Did he let that stop him?

He told NPR, “And after the automobile accident, I had to do the next recordings in a cast, a body cast. And so with one arm fixed right up even with my face, the only thing I could move with my right hand was my thumb. So I put a thumb pick on that, laid the guitar, and I had a rack built to hold the guitar horizontal, and it laid there flat. And I just stood up and played my part, and that’s how I made the parts for the next four or five records.”

When doctors couldn’t rebuild his elbow, he requested it be fused at a right angle so he could still hold and play the guitar.

He spent his long recuperation dreaming up new inventions. You’ve got to love his approach to recovery. He told NPR: “I figured that every week that went by, I got better. And if I got better, why, I had newer ideas.”

One of his new ideas led to the solid-body electric guitar that fans know today as the Gibson Les Paul. Guitar World calls it “one of the most iconic and respected guitars ever created.” He invented the neck-worn holder so he could accompany himself on the harmonica and pioneered many recording techniques.

Wickipedia says he’s the only person included in both the Rock and Roll and the National Inventors Halls of Fame.

Paul said, “When you learn to live with obstacles, they can be overcome. Every setback might be the very thing that makes you carry on and fight all the harder and be that much better.”

Turns out Paul and then wife Mary Ford sang a duet that’s an old favorite of mine: “Vaya con Dios” (#1 for 11 weeks in the early 1950s.) Their hits also included “How High the Moon” and “Bye Bye Blues.” The twosome, who divorced, have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In a 1980 documentary The Wizard of Waukesha, Les Paul said, “I don’t know anything but how wonderful it is for the ends of your fingers to talk to thousands of people out there in that audience.”

He was still playing, despite arthritis, near the end of his life. About those gigs, he said, “Today I don’t care about the money. I just go in and play.”

A lesson worth remembering. Just go in and play.

(Thanks, NPR, for the inspiration.)

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