His injuries nearly ended his career and put him flat on his back in a Hospital for almost a year. On a positive note, it also gave him much time to reassess his music and life.
"I'm lying there in the hospital, really a mess, so it was a question of whether I was even going to make it," Paul said in a phone interview from his New Jersey home. "Of all my injuries, the worst was my right arm."
It happened in 1948. Les and Mary were driving to California after visiting Paul's hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin., to visit his family. On the way, Les came down with a bad fever and rested in the front seat of their Buick convertible while Mary drove. During the trip, they encountered a winter storm that coated the roads with ice.
When the couple came to a railroad track that ran under a highway that connected the cities of Davenport and Chandler, Oklahoma, Mary lost control of the car. Les managed to take control of the vehicle and steady it slightly. Still, his attempts made no difference in the icy conditions, and the car went over the side of the railroad overpass and plummeted twenty feet into a ravine. Les, Mary, and their musical equipment were thrown from the vehicle, which landed in the frozen river at the bottom.
Miraculously Mary was not seriously injured, but Les received six broken ribs, vertebrae, a fractured pelvis, a punctured spleen, a broken nose, and his right arm was shattered with a crushed elbow. He also contracted pneumonia after lying in the snow for eight hours waiting for help.
After being rushed to the hospital in Oklahoma City, Les was told that his right arm might have to be amputated, but Les was determined to keep it and play his guitar again. After several surgeries, Dr. Knight said he had saved my arm as well as he could, but it wasn't working.
Les was flown to Los Angeles, California, to see a bone specialist Dr. Francis McKeaver at Good Samaritan Hospital.
Les was told that he could replace his right elbow with a piece of bone from his leg. A steel plate was also used to repair his elbow, which the doctors set at a 90-degree angle, thumb pointed in, with the hopes that he would play again.
Les' hopes were realized, and then some. Though this would save his arm from amputation, he would lose all ability to bend it. Les agreed to the procedure and had his doctor set his arm in a position where he could play his guitar again.
As you can see from the picture above, Dad could not get his right hand in position to play the guitar. So he altered a guitar stand to hold his instrument in place, angled to match his new arm position. He practiced this technique and eventually recorded again while still in his cast. After more than a year of rehabilitation and adapting to the change in his arm, Les regained his ability to play. While recuperating, Les had three single instrumentals on the charts featuring his New Sound, "Lover," "Brazil," and "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Les went on to successfully record a string of hit songs and a TV show with Mary and continued his pioneering innovations in the music world.
"I got a long time to think about things and changed my whole concept. I would switch and have Mary be the singer, just the two of us, and create this new music. It was such an asset to me to be disabled so badly; it forced me to stop doing everything and think about it. And thinking about it changed my whole life right there." And so it happened.