Les Paul Before the Les Paul: A Groundbreaking Artist Honored by the Library of Congress
For most of us, the name “Les Paul” means one thing first and foremost: the most revered set-neck solidbody electric guitar ever created. Behind that, we occasionally spare a thought for the artist and inventor who gave that model its name, but our interest in Les Paul the man tends to begin in 1952 when the first Les Paul (aka the “Goldtop”) was introduced, and to peak around 1959 when the model reached its zenith in the form of what is now the most valuable standard-production electric guitar ever created. There was a lot more to Les, however, than most players today would ever imagine, and his contribution to—and endorsement of—Gibson’s first solidbody electric was itself such a major thing precisely because he was already a major star, and a groundbreaking musician, in his own right.
So noteworthy was Les Paul’s contribution to the advancement of recorded music that one of his studio recordings has been added to the National Registry of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) of the United States Library of Congress. While all American recordings, books and other forms of publications can qualify for filing in the Library of Congress, the NRPB created this Registry in 2002 as a special repository for recordings that “highlight the richness of the nation’s audio legacy and underscore the importance of assuring the long-term preservation of that legacy for future generations.”
In other words, while plenty of great recordings have been made, these are considered indispensable documents of our nation’s recorded heritage.
And voted by the Board to be added to the Registry in its very first year: Les Paul and Mary Ford’s 1951 recording of “How High the Moon”. Recently the NRPB sought to further reinforce the importance of these recordings by commissioning a series of essays that discuss their significance, and a look at just why Les Paul was such a groundbreaking artists definitely gives us greater insight into this famous guitarist’s achievements.
Les Paul was one of popular music’s biggest stars of the early part of the mid-20th Century, and he and Mary Ford (to whom he was married for 15 years) formed a superstar pairing to rival any for hits and household recognition. Paul and Ford met in 1946—introduced by cowboy crooner and film star Gene Autry, as legend has it, for whom she was working as a back-up singer—and through the late ’40s developed a close relationship that was both personal and professional, marrying in 1949. In addition to hosting nationally syndicated radio and TV shows, they logged up 28 hits for Capitol Records between 1950 and 1957, including 16 Top Tens in the first four years of that stretch alone, one of which was 1951’s “How High the Moon”, a Billboard #1 for nine weeks.
Alongside his considerable success as a performer, however, Paul was also an innovator and an inventor—long before putting his name on the solidbody model that we guitarists best know him for today—and was either directly or partly responsible for many advances in musical instrument and recording technologies that are still very much standards in these fields in the 21st century. As a pioneer of multi-track recording and tape delay (echo), the inventor of sound-on-sound recording, as well as being a collaborator in the creation of one of the world’s most significant electric guitars, Paul himself was behind an impressive array of developments that enabled groundbreaking recordings in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and which continue to define how popular music is performed and recorded.
Paul was an enthusiastic pioneer of multi-track recording by the late 1940s, and he brought his best efforts to date to the recording of “How High the Moon” (a song written by Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton for the 1940 musical review Two for the Money). He would develop an eight-track reel-to-reel tape recorder a few years later, finally taken up for commercial production by Ampex in 1957, but in 1951 Les Paul was still achieving his lush layering of instrumental and vocal parts by bouncing tracks back and forth between two monophonic recording decks to overdub part on top of part. In the late 1930s and 1940s, Paul’s efforts were restricted to using a pair of cumbersome disc recorders, but he had been given one of the first professional Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorders by singer Bing Crosby in 1949, and a pair of these were behind the impressive production of the couple’s massive hits of the 1950s.
Recording in the studio that Paul had configured in the couple’s apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, the couple attempted two failed renditions—one spoiled by sirens from the fire station across the street, another when an upstairs neighbor flushed the toilet—before successfully overdubbing the full 12 vocal tracks and 12 instrumental parts from one Ampex tape recorder to the other to create the lush, ethereal arrangement for which the song is famous. Once they got rolling, Paul told Sound On Sound magazine in January 2007, the entire effort took less than an hour. “I was so into it, and so free, having played so much, that I’d just press the button and go,” he recalled. “And Mary was absolutely super. I’d tell her what I wanted and that’s what she’d put down.”
Prior to the release of “How High the Moon”, the standard for studio recording involved capturing what was essentially a live performance, with all parts performed simultaneously by as many musicians as were required to fill out the arrangement, and many artists continued to do it this way for many years after, too. Les Paul’s engineering artistry, in addition to the superb musicianship that both he and Mary Ford brought to the venture, pointed to a future where the musician-producer could create dense, multi-layered arrangements using very few players. The techniques used to create “How High the Moon” might have been seen as “novelties” by some traditionalists in the field, but Paul’s use of multi-tracking to create layer upon layer of chorused sounds from the same instrument or vocalist, and the way it enabled just a few performers to produce the sound and feel of a large ensemble, would soon become standards of the professional studio.
Recorded on January 4, 1951, “How High the Moon” entered the charts on March 23, where it stayed for 25 weeks, including nine weeks at #1.
Within the next year Gibson would introduce the now-legendary guitar that carried Les Paul’s name on the headstock, and over the course of coming decades his legacy would be etched into the histories of musical genres that he couldn’t even have foreseen at the time. Even before giving his name to that milestone, however, Paul was establishing musical techniques and pioneering technologies that would set the course for much of popular music to come.
You can find Dave Hunter’s full essay “How High the Moon” – Les Paul & Mary Ford (1951) in the NRPB’s National Registry.