Simply the best
By Evan Solochek + Photos by Kat Jacobs and Gene Martin
He is one of the recording industry’s true living legends; some call him the godfather of modern music. His name is as synonymous with rock & roll as Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. What’s that? You say you’ve never heard of him? Well, take a closer look at that cursive signature on the headstock of that Gibson guitar your favorite musician is playing. That’s his. His name is Les Paul.
Born Lester William Polfuss in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Les Paul took to music at an early age, performing semi-professionally by the age of 13 and with Rube Tronson’s Cowboys by 17. Shortly thereafter, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri and joined the Wolverston’s Radio Band on KMOX. By the 1930s, Paul was in Chicago playing jazz on local radio stations, and in 1936 he released his first two records.
However, despite this early success, Paul was generally disappointed with the musical equipment with which he had to work; he found the acoustic bodies of the ‘30s-era electric guitars to be too dampening for noisy clubs. So, Paul began experimenting, and after some initial success in 1935 with “The Log,” which was nothing more than a length of fence post with a bridge, neck and pickup attached, Paul perfected his design in 1941 and built one of the first solid-body electric guitars, a revolutionary design that made rock & roll’s signature sound possible.
By the early ‘50s, Gibson Guitar Corporation had finally taken an interest and used some of Paul’s design suggestions to build a prototype that would come to be known the world over as the “Les Paul” model, immortalized by the likes of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Bob Marley, Joe Perry, Slash and countless others. Today the Les Paul design remains virtually unchanged and one of the most popular guitar models around.
While Paul also made many groundbreaking innovations in the area of multi-track recording, overdubbing and reverb, he is much more than an inventor. Widely considered the greatest jazz guitarist of his generation, over his 75 years in music and radio Paul has released over 10 albums, recorded and performed with the likes of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005 and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2006. Also in 2006, at the age of 90, Paul won two Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played.
Now 91, this musical visionary will return home to Waukesha on May 10 to play a concert at the Milwaukee Marriott West hotel (tickets are $1,500 for up-front Premier Tables of four or $300 for general admission) that will also include appetizers, dinner, a silent auction and an autograph session. While the concert will only be 45 minutes long, it will mark the first time in 20 years that the “Wizard of Waukesha” has performed in Milwaukee. In recognition of this homecoming, Governor Jim Doyle, Waukesha County Executive Daniel P. Vrakas and City of Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson have proclaimed May “Les Paul Month.”
All proceeds from this benefit concert will go toward “The Les Paul Experience,” a 5,000 square-foot permanent exhibit that will open in 2010 at the Waukesha County Museum to showcase Les Paul’s inventions and renowned influence on modern music.
“Since purchasing its building in 2003, Waukesha County Museum has been planning and raising funds to build [the Les Paul] exhibit,” says Susan Baker, the museum’s Executive Director.
Including Paul’s personal $25,000 contribution, only $1 million has so far been raised for the project that is expected to cost $3 million to complete. This concert, it is hoped, will raise an additional $50,000 and help kick-start donations.
“The public, from Waukesha County to across the U.S., has expressed its eagerness to experience the exhibit,” says Baker. “Everyone is anticipating the evolution of the Museum when the exhibit opens. The exhibit will have a major impact on Waukesha County becoming a tourist destination and that will positively impact all of Southeast Wisconsin.”
While Les Paul may be one of Milwaukee’s most influential and legendary sons, he and his Wisconsin ties remain relatively unknown to the general public: a fact that this museum hopes to change. Much more than a sterile academic presentation, “The Les Paul Experience” will be filled with personal touches that will take the viewer on a hi-tech journey through the master’s multi-faceted life and career.
“Museum staff members have worked with Les Paul on the design of the exhibit,” says Baker. “This exhibit will be the most comprehensive on Les Paul, and as Les Paul has said, ‘It will be the most personal and the best.’ We agree.” VS
For tickets or other information, call the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum at 262-521-2859 or visit www.wchsm.org.