How do you write a book on the man who wrote the book on the electric guitar? That’s the challenge facing reporter Mary Shaughnessy, who, when she isn’t covering stories as diverse as the Live Aid concert and the Baby M trial or tying up loose ends as a researcher back at the office or penning record reviews, can be found in her Brooklyn apartment writing a biography of Les Paul.
“He has packed four or five lifetimes into one,” says Shaughnessy, 36, who covered the recent New York party in Paul’s honor (page 63). The 73-year-old picker-tinkerer was a pioneering engineer as well as a recording star who scored with dozens of hit records, including “Vaya con Dios” and his trademark “How High the Moon.”
“He’s an electronics genius, a peerless performer, an incredible storyteller,” Shaughnessy says. Her book, scheduled to be published by Morrow in early 1990, will also feature Paul the carouser and practical joker. Some years ago, Paul and a pal dressed as Saudi Arabian royalty and regally deposited themselves in one of Hollywood’s poshest eateries. They accidentally dumped a bag full of glittering rhinestones on the floor, then slipped out the door and watched with amusement as the formally attired clientele made a dive for the junk jewelry.
Mary Shaughnessy is a quieter sort. Raised in Boston, the youngest of seven children of a salesman father and a mother who worked as a telephone operator, she grew up in a family where “there was always a lot of singing around the house.” With her sister and most of her brothers a good many years older than she, Shaughnessy was a somewhat solitary child. “Music was my solace, my companion,” she says. She received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where she was the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper. After graduation, she embarked on a circuitous career path that included stints as news editor at the Brooklyn Phoenix, teaching career education and home economics in an inner-city Boston high school, singing in an Irish folk band, cooking aboard a fishing boat in Alaska and working as a stringer for TIME before joining PEOPLE in 1984. Her love of music has remained throughout. Nine months ago she married someone who shares it: jazz musician Brian Nalepka, a vocalist and bassist with the Manhattan Rhythm Kings.
Says Senior Editor Ralph Novak, who edits Shaughnessy’s reviews, “Since she came to PEOPLE, I have admired Mary’s versatility, her ability to reach into unexpected areas.”
So does Les Paul. “She listens and observes a lot,” he says—”even things I don’t tell her. If I clear my throat, she goes to the doctor and finds out if there’s anything wrong with me.”
Nobody argues that Les Paul knows music. But add one more item to his résumé: He knows when a reporter is on the beat.