Teenager Colleen Paul’s idea of a big thrill is to meet Peter Frampton. Perhaps to her surprise, Peter Frampton’s idea is to meet her 61-year-old dad, Les Paul. Peter got his opportunity backstage at this year’s Grammy awards in L.A., coming up and blurting “Man, I idolize you.” Kiddingly, Paul replied, “My daughter idolizes you—she had me runnin’ all over New Jersey looking for that crummy album of yours.” It was Paul back in 1929 who decided to try to amplify his acoustic guitar by jamming a Victrola needle into the wood and playing through the speaker. That experiment was comparable in music mythology to Ben Franklin’s flying his kite in the lightning.
In the ensuing decades, picker-tinkerer Paul developed the overdubbing and multitrack techniques that became the basis of all rock recording. He also perfected and patented the “Les Paul” series—the Stradivarii of electric guitars and the axes wielded by Frampton, the Stones’ Keith Richard, the Who’s Peter Townshend and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. “Some kids think I’m a guitar, not a guitarist,” laughs Paul. The kids’ parents know better. With ex-wife Mary Ford, he clicked off 21 hit records of standards like How High the Moon and Vaya Con Dios with sales estimated at 75 million.
Yet it was not all those 1950s goldies or his revolutionary influence that got Les Paul to the Grammys this year. He was present not as a Hall of Fame inductee but as a 1977 nominee, and as it turned out, winner of the Grammy for the year’s best country instrumental. It’s Chester and Lester, a silky-smooth LP that he cut with fellow elder statesman Chet Atkins. The award was the culmination of a casual performing comeback. From 1964 to 1974, Paul barely touched his own Les Paul. Then he eased back into the action with some New York City club dates and scored some ’50s music for TV’s Happy Days. Now the exhilaration of Grammys night and a few weeks in L.A. (“There were at least 35 acts in town”) have rejuvenated Paul. He’s planning a live album with New Jersey neighbor jazz guitarist George Benson, a follow-up with Atkins, concerts at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, on college campuses and in Japan and Australia.
Mary Ford’s been out of the act since their clamorous divorce began in 1962 (she’s remarried and lives in California). A middle-aged woman Les calls “my chick—I don’t go for the younger ones, you have to explain everything”—lives close by. But like any new rock star hitting stride, Les has considered leaving her and home (his 29-room Jersey fortress on seven wooded acres) for Hollywood.
The Jersey home is an astonishing, cluttered monument to Paul’s pioneering role in the record industry—a veritable Smithsonian of sound. There are leaden radio mikes from the ’20s, humble hatbox-sized amplifiers, two makeshift record-cutting lathes and the cramped garage where he once recorded Garland, Crosby, the Andrews Sisters and W. C. Fields. It also contains Paul’s priceless collection of guitars—including “the Log,” the first wooden solid-body electric guitar, which he fashioned from a 4-by-4 beam. “The sound equipment here,” he says, believably, “is the finest in the world.”
The major pleasure of Paul’s rebirth as an artist is the acceptance of younger fans. “After shows they don’t come up to me with pencil and paper. They bring their guitars, hand me a screwdriver and ask me to scratch ‘Les Paul’ into the wood somewhere.” Of course, a 20-year vintage Les Paul fetches $3,000, and the 1977 models retail at from $600 to $1,200.
Paul’s own first instrument was a harmonica, his first guitar from Sears Roebuck. Born Lester Polfus to a Waukesha, Wis. auto mechanic who designed racing cars, Les was interested mostly in woodworking and technical courses and left high school at 13, although he was in his senior year. By 14, he was supporting himself playing roadhouses and later mastered the guitar with Fred Waring and by writing down dots on chord diagrams wherever Gene Autry put his fingers. A serious setback along the way was an auto accident in 1948 in which Les lost the joint of his right elbow. The surgeon, at Paul’s request, restored the arm permanently locked in right-angle picking position. His breakthrough came thereafter with Autry alumna songstress Coleen Summers, whom he married and renamed Mary Ford. It was Les’s second marriage and her third.
Les and Mary had a son, Robert, now 17, and adopted Colleen. By his previous marriage, Paul has two sons, both record engineers—an ilk he now worries about. “Rock has become a world where machines are running men. It’s a frightening thing.” He frets about the cosmetic production of the superstars, a revolution he helped create. “They go into the studio saying, ‘We’ll fool around till we get it right.’ Then they spend a month doing one track alone and decide, after hearing it, that it has to be redone because they don’t like the color of the carpet. So they change the carpet and absorb it in the bill. Jeez,” he recalls, “Mary and I recorded 21 songs through one little amp we carried everywhere. Chet and I did our album in three hours. When he asked, ‘What about all those clams [mistakes]?’ I said, ‘Leave ’em in. Let ’em know we’re human.’ ”