by Mary Alice Shaughnessy
This conscientious biography of guitarist Les Paul began as a collaboration, but Paul later withdrew his support. It’s easy to see why. Shaughnessy, a PEOPLE reporter, carefully chronicles Paul’s 60-year career in radio, TV and film and his innovations in recording techniques and guitar design. But her complex portrait also includes Paul’s divorces, accidents (in a 1948 car crash he shattered his strumming arm in three places) and deceits along the way.
Shaughnessy begins in Waukesha, Wis., where Lester William Polsfuss was born in 1915. His mother, Evelyn, favored Les over his older brother and was encouraging his musical talent before the age of 3. His father, George, a businessman, was a charmer—as well as a drinker and gambler—who left the family in 1923, when Les was 8. According to the author, Les, who became known as Red Hot Red, Rhubarb Red and Even Steven the Piano Demon, had serious demons of his own. He was an obsessive workaholic who split from his first wife, Virginia, and their two children for the singer Iris Colleen Summers, whom he renamed Mary Ford. They formed a successful duo and had two children before their divorce in 1964.
After years of illness and isolation in his 29-room home in Mahwah, N.J., there’s a happy ending. Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. His career was resurrected in 1984 at Fat Tuesday’s in Manhattan, where he still plays his guitar every Monday. (Morrow, $24.50)