Until that time, I thought every father made his own guitars and had  his own eight-track studio, [laughs]...  That was the environment I was living in, so I didn't think anything different.  But when I got on the road, that was really the time when I soaked it all in and figured out that it wasn't just a case of 'father knows best.'  I realized this guy was doing something else.  I was playing in the orchestra when Mary and Les were on stage and really got a sense of: 'Wow, this is not my Dad now, you know.  People were coming up and asking for autographs.  And I saw him in his element, and that's when I really started to appreciate the adventure of my Dad's life.'

But as he discovered one day, there were some classic records he knew nothing about, much closer to home.  'When I went to Atlantic Records, and my life went on its road, I ended up in mastering.'  "One day, my partner Joel came into the mastering suite, smiling.  So I asked, 'OK, what's so funny?' He answered, 'You'll never guess the next project.'  I said, 'Really?  What is it?'  His answer surprised me.  'He said it's an early Decca jazz album of your Dad.'  I said, 'Really?  I never heard that?'  Dad never played any of his early jazz stuff in the house, so I'm sitting there mastering this album, hearing it for the first time in my life.  He always played Django Reinhardt in the house but never played his early jazz stuff.  And when I heard the album, I was just amazed.  So he had his secrets, but this guitar was the biggest one he ever had," Gene says, his mind returning to the day when his father told him to fetch his number one, Les Paul.


Gene recalls that it was around 1959 when he first showed me that guitar.  And when I first opened the case, my dad said something I didn't understand.  The second time was the charm, was what he said.  And I was sitting there trying to figure out what he meant.  So I asked him, and he said, "Well, you got to sit down, and I'll tell you about it." Gene explains that his father then told him the following story.

Pictured here at Atlantic Studios an Aretha Franklin 1970's session - Left to right Willie Weeks, Cornell Dupree, Ralph McDonald, Jerry Wexler, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Tom Dowd, Gene Paul, Bernard Pretty Purdie.& kids & Arif Mardin.

Gene says that despite being an unusually gifted man who was as skilled at inventing audio equipment as he was at playing the guitar, Les didn't brag.  In some ways, he was so modest that even his family wasn't fully aware of his achievements.  Using the skills he learned in his father's studio, Gene became an award-winning engineer and producer.  Joining Atlantic Records, Gene worked with legendary artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Carole King, Bette Midler, Hall & Oates, Willie Nelson, and Roberta Flack on many milestone albums.  

Surprisingly, that mission didn't start with a direct approach to a major guitar maker but with household appliances.  "Growing up, my dad was the type of a kid who would make do with what he's got," Gene says, "and his mother would let him do anything, so he felt free to do anything.  He had a Sears and Roebuck guitar, which was his first guitar, and he wanted to amplify that a little bit to see if he could make people happy.  So he got hold of his mother's phone and radio and figured out how to amplify the guitar a little bit.  But he had something in his head telling him, 'This ain't it, you know?' "So he and a buddy went out looking for something more solid than an acoustic guitar body and changed the sound from an acoustic guitar to something in his head.  He didn't know what it was but had a vision he couldn't clarify.  Anyway, they had a railroad track that went by the house, and he and his buddy took a little wagon and went over to see if they could find something more solid than what his acoustic was made of.  They found a metal railroad track, a small piece, and they brought it back to the house and rigged it so he could put his strings on it. But because it did not have any natural acoustics he amplified it using the his mother's radio and the telephone as a pick-up."

"The first time I saw that guitar, he wasn't playing it," Gene Paul recalls of his father, Les Paul's most cherished possession.  He asked me to go downstairs and get a specific guitar, and when I brought it back upstairs, it was in its case.  And he said, 'Put it right on the table there,' and open it up.'  It was his magnificent gold guitar, simple and elegant.

'I was just so struck by it,' Gene continues, 'because I was used to the black Les Paul custom guitar and the white one he used on stage and had in the control room.  But he asked me to get this one, and I brought it out.  So I sat there, looked at it, and asked him, 'What's this?'  And then he sat down and told me a story.

The story was no less than a full account of how Les battled for years to make his dream of a solid-body electric guitar a reality.  A guitar whose voice could rise above a full orchestra and that summoned up the pristine sounds that Les, a Grammy award-winning master of the instrument, could not achieve with the acoustic arch-tops he started his career on back in the 1930s.  The guitar that young Gene held in his case in 1959 was his father's fabled number one, the first approved production model, Les Paul, to be presented to Les prior to the model's launch in 1952.  To Les himself, this young guitar sitting in its plush case didn't represent the beginning of something, but the triumphant end of a near 30-year struggle to make a dream that he pursued obsessively finally come true.  For the first time, Gene Paul is ready to tell Guitarist Magazine the full story of how it all happened.


To tell that story, Gene explains it's necessary to go back to the beginning when Gene was a child, and Les seemed in some ways not all that different from other dads.  A trip to the theater provided the first inkling that his guitar-loving father was, in fact, a major force in American music.  "My earliest memory of him playing guitar was in Chicago," Gene Paul recalls.  "I lived with my mom and was about eight years old.  Dad came to town with Mary Ford, and they were playing at the Chicago Theater.  He brought me down to the theater with them, and I saw him perform there.  

Gibson was first class," Gene observed.  "I mean, they made not only guitars, but they made mandolins, upright bases, cellos, violins. They had the whole nine yards covered. And Dad admired the woodcrafts of the violins and all of those things. He really dug that. So he had his eyes on Gibson and he told me, 'I wanted to take it to Gibson.  I was ready. I had something. The log went to the club. It worked. It was accepted. Gibson's going to take this and run with it.'  But, of course, they basically told him, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' Have a nice day, you know?" Gene laughs. "And privately they even called it 'the broomstick with pick-ups on it.' But dad wasn't taken aback by that at all. Not at all. He thought, 'Okay, this is going to give me time to experiment some more, try some more ideas. And one day I'm going to put this guitar with Gibson and we're going to make it together. I don't care if it takes another 10 years, 20 years. I'll wait and keep going.' And that's what he did."


Buoyed by the sucess of the Log on the live stage but hungry to improve his solid body guitar concept still further, Les soon had another idea for making a breakthrough. "Dad said, his next adventure was quite interesting because in 1941, after he took the log to Gibson, he had a flash of inspiration while he was performing with the Andrew sisters," Gene said. "And the flash was: why not try aluminum? So he made an aluminum guitar and it was so innovative. It was great - and it was wonderfully odd looking - everything was wonderful about it. It sounded good. So what could go wrong? Well, he's on stage. And of course, when he took his solo, they put a spotlight on him. And the heat from the spotlight changed to tuning because of the conductivity of the metal. So the only time he could play the damn thing would be in the dark, [laughs]. But he still kept it. And it was marvelous. But the story was better than the guitar."

Now, several years into his quest, with some failures and a few successes to show for it, it would have been understandable, unless his enthusiasm for chasing his solid body dream had waned. But giving up wasn't in his nature, Gene explains. "I don't think people understand what the hell this guy went through from getting that note at the barbecue stand till the time he finally got Gibson lit. Because this was 24/7. I mean, he once said to me, 'Do you realized how many light bulbs Edison made before he found the one that worked?' He spent what it is close to 30 years on this before Gibson finally said, 'hey, we ought to try it, you know?' So anyway, it's now 1941. And he's still sitting there thinking, 'okay, they hear with their eyes. Maybe what I should do is get a stock Epiphone guitar.' So he got a stock from Epiphone and immediately put a metal plate in it. I mean, nothing was safe [laughs]. But he called this guitar 'The Clunker', and he made three of these guitars from 1941 to 1946. But this guitar turned out so good that he didn't touch it or modify it. And believe me, you had to put him in a straitjacket to get him not to modify a guitar because that was his whole being on the planet. But this guitar turned out so good it was the one that he used for the  Jazz at the Philharmonic and Bing Crosby. It was also the guitar he used on Les and Mary's own run of recordings with Capitol. So now it was like, 'Wow, I really got something.


After trying for so long to get the tiniest break, things now started to move fast. It was 1950 and Gibson had a new competitor in Fender who brought the first solid body electric - the Esquire and the Broadcaster - to market, confounding critics by scoring a hit with his new designs with traditionalists and initially derided as 'canoe paddles.'

Realizing that change was in the wind, the team at Gibson approached Les, Gene recalls, and this time they were all ears. "Well, this is the time that Uncle Gibson knocks on the door and says, 'Oh by the way, seeing as you have all these hits and you're making all this noise and this electric guitar and Fender is getting hot on the heels... maybe we should talk. Are you interested?'  And before they finished the sentence, Dad said, 'Let's go.'" This was the moment Les had referred to cryptically at the start of the story he told Gene in 1959 - the second time was indeed the charm except this time round Gibson was coming to him. The sense of validation was a relief was huge, Gene says, and now Les could roll his sleeves up and embark on the work of creating something truly new with one of the greatest guitar makers in American history."Dad could finally take a breath and say he's at the door and they're not throwing him out," Gene reflects, "But it still took two years of going back and forth after that [to get the guitar right] -  he said that it got some guitars for approval that couldn't even play. He had big hands so the regular neck wasn't right for him and he needed that changed.   And they did the bridge wrong...this was wrong and that was wrong. He went back and forth with these guys and finally he received the guitar that was right.  And when he was telling me this, he looked at me and said, 'This is it...This is my Number One.'  And he just had that little smile on his face and his eyes were wide open - He had a definite bond with that guitar without a doubt more than any other and I'm not saying this because of the auction or any of that - as far as I'm concerned, my dedication is to his legacy, but this guitar was the one that meant quietly, personally, everything." Gene says that Les was grateful to Gibson and knew that he couldn't have achieved this dream without their help - and willingness to listen to what he wanted from a solid electric guitar. "He said to me, 'I was so pleased with the fact that Gibson allowed me to do it my way.  Because it had to feel right to me when I played it.' And he was so pleased that Gibson allowed him to do that and of course, they had tremendous input with it too. Dad never said 'I did it all'... For example, Dad mentioned that Maurice Berlin, [founder of CMI which owned the controlling staking Gibson] was the one who came up with the idea of having an arched top like a violin. Maurice said, 'would you be interested in that being on your guitar?' And Dad said, 'Oh man, I didn't know you could do that.' So Dad was really pleased with the combination of everybody involved with it. But he really was honored by the fact that Gibson believed in him enough to let him really make it to where he felt good playing it. And that was his moment."

"This was the next step in the evolution of this thing because he sat there and said, 'Well, this is different.'  The fact that it worked intrigued him, and when he showed his Mom, she asked, 'Lester, when have you ever seen a cowboy on a horse playing a railroad track?' Knowing Mother was right again, he started stuffing an acoustic guitar with shorts, t-shirts, socks, and anything he could find to deaden the response.  That did something, but more was needed.  Then he went to the next step, which was plaster of Paris, and he put that in his guitar, which was even better, but it didn't quite make it."  The crazed vision of Les Paul pouring plaster into his guitar shows how feverishly dedicated he was to developing a solid-body guitar.

However, it took until 1938 for Les to find the ideal laboratory for his experiments in electric guitar tone.  Les had moved to New York by this point, Gene explained and was looking around for a workshop where he could build his dream instrument.  Handily, he came across a rising guitar maker who was willing to let him use his premises.  "Epiphone was in New York then, and they had a shop.  Les talked his way into it and made friends with everybody," Gene recalls.  "Les started working with a four-by-four plank of wood, which became the guitar he called The Log."

That was another turning point in his life because that was the first time he found something that didn't weigh a ton but did provide what he was looking for in his solid platform.  So he put a neck and his strings on it.  By then, they had some pickups going, and he used those, too."  With this crude but functional prototype up and running, Les decided to take The Log out to a gig - and there, he made a discovery about guitar design that had held true from 1938 to the present day.  "He took The Log, went to a nightclub, and played, and nobody responded," Gene recalls.  "So he returned to the house, and Mom was there and asked him what happened.  She was expecting a great response, but he said, 'It didn't go well...they didn't respond,'  But with his usual perseverance personified.  I mean, this guy was never defeated.

The cup was always half full...So he said, 'Well, maybe it has to look like a guitar?'  "So he went back to Epiphone, and he put the wings on it," Gene says, referring to adding two curving sections of wood attached to the central plank to lend The Log a regular jazz guitar outline.  "They didn't change the sound at all," Gene explains.  "They just made it look like a guitar.  So then he returned to the same club, the same song, performed it again, and went home that night.  Mom asked him again, and he said 'it was great.'  And she was so happy, and he was amazed by it.  And he said to her, 'I think I learned something tonight.'  And she asked, what's that?  And he said, 'I think they hear with their eyes....'  Now that The Log had proven itself at its first gig, he could continue his work on perfecting his pickups as the next stage of his creation.  Les decided the time was right to approach a major guitar maker.  And he chose Gibson.  

."One day in the 1930s, when Les's career was beginning, he played a gig at a barbecue stand," Gene remembers.  "The gig was an ordinary affair, but what happened afterward changed Les's life and guitar history forever.  After my dad finished playing, this gentleman sent him a note.  It said, 'I heard the voice great.  I heard the harmonica great but couldn't hear the guitar.' "At that point in the story, my dad stopped for a moment and said, 'If there's one regret I really, really wish I could fix, I wish I could have known who that guy was because that note is what made this guitar happen.  Because after I got that note, I went home and started work.' The note started Les on a 30-year quest to make his playing heard properly, then ended with the creation of one of the most famous guitars of all time.

Words Jamie Dickson,

Edited Gene Paul, Joel Kerr