It’s hard to think of another couple whose personal and professional lives were as intertwined – and successful – as those of Les Paul and Mary Ford. On the surface, their partnership looked ill-fitted from the start, but for most of their 15 years together – 20, if you include their five-year courtship – the relationship between Paul and Ford was a storybook tale.
By age 20, Colleen Summers (she adopted the stage-name “Mary Ford” after meeting Paul), was performing in The Sunshine Girls, a country-western trio who backed, among others, Gene Autry. By this time, the mid ‘40s, Paul was well on his way to becoming the world’s most innovative thinker with regard to recording technology and the development of the electric guitar. Introduced to one another by Autry, the couple began a courtship, of sorts, as Paul’s first marriage was deteriorating.
"Mary and I [went] together for five years,” Paul later recalled, speaking to Modern Guitars. “She was a guitar hippie and she followed me around from city to city. Boy, I was the round wheel. She thought that there was no one who played like me or sounded like me. [Later] I decided I was going to do something with my group -- add a vocalist. It was then that I decided I'd have Mary sing ….”
It was also during this period – specifically, January 1948 – that Paul suffered the devastating injury that nearly ended his career. In the wake of the automobile accident that left Paul’s right elbow shattered, Ford (still going by the name, Summers) moved in with Paul and tended to him during his 18-month convalescence. “This was a frustrating time of recuperation, and she took care of me like an angel,” Paul wrote, in the book Les Paul – In His Own Words. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.”
By 1949, Ford was performing with Paul, who had lifted Ford’s new stage name from a telephone directory. On December 29, 1949, the couple married. Paul began hosting a 15-minute radio program, titled The Les Paul Show, for NBC Radio. The program featured his trio, which included Ford and rhythm player Eddie Stapleton. Playful interaction between Paul and Ford was interspersed in the performances, which included such tunes as “In the Mood” and “Tiger Rag.” The show was later adapted for NBC TV as Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home, airing in 5-minute intervals as a fill-in segment between regular programming.
By the early ‘50s, Paul and Ford had become one of the biggest acts in the music world, having scored success with a radio show, a TV show and a seemingly endless string of hits. In 1951 alone, the duo sold six million records, with hits that included “How High the Moon” and “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.” Thanks to Paul’s cutting-edge work in multi-track technology, the recordings often featured Ford harmonizing with herself, something new under the sun.
The sessions were produced at Les and Mary’s home, with Paul later delivering the masters to Capitol Records. Other innovations included the use of “close miking,” a new concept (now ubiquitous) that emphasized low-frequency sounds in the vocals. Between 1950 and 1954, the couple scored no less than 16 Top Ten hits. All told, they issued 28 hits for Capitol Records between the years 1950 and 1957.
Having amassed a considerable fortune, Paul and Ford established a woodland retreat in Mahwah, New Jersey, replete with a recording studio and an echo chamber carved into a nearby mountain. All indications were the couple was leading an idyllic life that included travel, glamour and such heady moments are appearing before the British royal family and performing at the Eisenhower White House. In 1955, however, with the advent of rock and roll, the Paul’s charmed life began to fray. The couple separated briefly in 1956. Two years later, a jump to a new record label (Columbia Records) failed to reinvigorate record sales.
This period was addressed in an article titled “Father of Invention,” written by Frank Houston for Salon.com. "Paul had made his art his life, but it was taking a toll on his family,” Houston wrote. “The grind of recording and touring was exhausting Ford, and the recording duo was headed for divorce, but there was a cultural force looming that would spell the end of their career even sooner: rock 'n' roll."
In his book, The Early Years of The Les Paul Legacy, author Robb Lawrence concurred. “Things unfortunately were slowly deteriorating on the home front,” he wrote. “Mary was used to relaxing at home and enjoying the easy-going lifestyle, while Les kept up his busy pace, going full-tilt and staying up late working long hours. Mary became exhausted from their active schedule and the raising of their two kids."
The marriage of Paul and Ford survived for five more years, but in May 1963, Billboard announced that the couple had separated. Ford moved to California, and a little more than a year later, their divorce was finalized. The parting had not been amicable, but as time passed, each looked back fondly on their years together. In an interview with Guitar International, Paul’s affection for Ford was palpable as he recalled their first performance together.
“My brother forgot to hire a bass player,” he said. “Mary had been following me around for five years. I told her that she should know what I play so she could play. [During the show] she sang church songs and a couple of hillbilly songs. So, I got her doing that and that’s when the light lit! I turned to my dad and he was shaking his head, ‘No!’ I was shaking my head, ‘Yes!’ My dad said that I was a roughneck and she was so delicate, so the two of us would never make it together. But we did.”