It only figures that American pop music would owe so much to a self-taught whiz kid from the heartland. The multitrack recording process -- taken for granted for a couple of generations -- as well as the most important axe in the rock-and-roll universe arose from the pre-Depression-era curiosity of young Wisconsin native Lester Polfus.
With no technical background, but gobs of ingenuity, the future Grammy winner and Rock Hall inductee reverse-engineered his musical education, deciphering notes from player-piano rolls, amplifying his guitar with a phonograph needle placed inside its body, and embarking upon an inventive path that would yield overdubs, echo chambers, and the solid-body electric guitar itself. Simultaneously, Les Paul made his mark as a country, jazz, and hit-making pop guitarist.
A veteran of radio and roadhouse gigs since his teens, Paul made national noise in the '40s, playing behind such stars of the day as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, as well as on his own jazz sides. During the '50s, he struck gold, merging his playing and recording skills, multitracking his guitar sound and the vocals of then-wife Mary Ford on his custom-built eight-channel tape machine. Paul's process produced a slew of chartbusters, including "How High the Moon" and "Bye Bye Blues," pissing off the musicians' union along the way with his do-it-yourself approach.
The '60s music revolution dampened Paul's record sales, but established the Gibson guitar series that bears his name as the heavyweight champ of rock-and-roll weaponry, brandished by such guitar-gods-in-ascension as Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Paul retired from performing to develop the axe further, returning to the stage at Carnegie Hall in 1975. Since 1996, Paul, now 89, has been a Monday-night institution at New York's Iridium Jazz Club. His upcoming stop in Cleveland will be a rare and welcome treat.