Trial Balloon

Trial Balloon: August 14, 2009 Archive

Les Paul's Mom Invented Rock & Roll

Posted at 5:38 AM on August 14, 2009 by Dale Connelly (18 Comments)

Congratulations to the winners of tickets to the Dar Williams concert at the Minnesota Zoo next week - Mike of White Bear Township, David of Crystal and Don in West St. Paul.

Radio Heartland has more tickets to give away - this time to an Americana Songwriter's Showcase at the Rochester Civic Theater next Wednesday, August 19th. The evening features Chris Knight of Nashville, Brandon Sampson and Dezi Wallace of the band Six Mile Grove, and The Porchlights (Martin Devaney and Jake Hyer). Use the online form to enter your name in the drawing, and as always, obey the rules. Good luck.

What's this about Les Paul's mother?
She was a co-inventor of Les Paul, to begin with. You've got to give her credit.

The guitarist and restless tinkerer died yesterday at the age of 94. He developed the electric guitar and multi-track recording, two necessary technologies for modern popular music. Much has already been said about Les Paul's trailblazing, but consider what it meant to have a child who was a compulsive deconstructor and re-assembler of household items.

The New York Times obituary described a moment when Les Paul was 10 years old.

He devised a harmonica holder from a coat hanger. Soon afterward he made his first amplified guitar by opening the back of a Sears acoustic model and inserting, behind the strings, the pickup from a dismantled Victrola. With the record player on, the acoustic guitar became an electric one.

From reading the accounts, one gets the impression no household item was safe from experimentation.

In a 2008 interview with the Times, Paul described another amplification effort that came about because somebody left a note at one of his performances saying "Your guitar is not loud enough." He took the magnet and coils out of a telephone receiver, put them under a guitar string attached to a piece of railroad iron he'd found, and connected the contraption to his mother's radio.

"And so I ran to my mother and said, 'I found it, I found the most beautiful sound I've ever heard.' And she said, 'the day you see a cowboy on a horse playing a piece of railroad track ...' I says, 'Mom, I got the message', and I went to work on wood - and shaping it like a woman, like a girl, OK? And to get that shape and to get that sweet sound and finally I got it, and this took years and years of continued working on it, and it took it to the manufacturers and they kept turning it down, saying that this is a novelty."

It was a novelty that changed the musical world and gave Les Paul his place in history. Years later, according to the same New York Times interview, mom sparked a new innovation:

"Multi track recording came about because my mother came to visit me in Chicago and she says, 'Driving down I heard you on the radio, and to my surprise it wasn't you.' And she says 'The fellow was copying you.' And I says, 'Mother I can't do much about that' and she says, 'You ought to do something.' And immediately I'm going home to my studio in the garage and I'm gonna make music that my mother can tell that it's me.Within two years I had a sound and a whole way of playing, creating, that was entirely different than anybody else."

So give the man his due - he was a fine musician and a technical wizard.
But parents create an environment where a child can grow and they set the boundaries. It sounds like young Lester Polfuss had a comfortable space to work in that allowed for re-bending the coat hangers, taking apart the telephone and re-wiring the radio.

"Honestly, I never strove to be an Edison," he said in a 1991 interview. "The only reason I invented these things was because I didn't have them and neither did anyone else. I had no choice, really."

Would your mother have let you do any of this stuff?

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