By Bob Tourtellotte
Legendary guitarist and inventor Les Paul, who pioneered the design of solid body Gibson electric guitars that bore his name, died Thursday at a New York hospital of complications from pneumonia. He was 94.
The rock 'n' roll icon was playing regular gigs at a New York City nightclub as recently as a few months ago until he began battling a series of illnesses that put him "in and out of the hospital," his attorney Michael Braunstein said.
"At 94, it's hard to fight a lot of stuff," Braunstein said. "He's a historical person. He certainly has left his mark here on Earth and had many, many friends."
Paul had been a dominant force in the music business since World War Two. He and wife Mary Ford enjoyed a string of hits in the 1940s and 1950s that included "Mockin' Bird Hill" and the influential "How High the Moon," which featured some of Paul's recording innovations, such as multi-layered tracks.
A passionate tinkerer, Paul created one of the first solid-body electric guitars in 1941, but it took nearly 10 years before he, working with Gibson Guitar Corp., perfected it. In 1952, the Les Paul Goldtop became an instant sensation that still impacts music, especially rock 'n' roll.
In the years that followed, Gibson released Paul's Black Beauty, the Les Paul Custom, Les Paul Junior, and 1958's Les Paul Standard, with its revolutionary humbucker pickups and sunburst design that has remained unchanged for 50 years
Tributes from the music world poured in as news of Paul's death spread.
"He was one of the most stellar human beings I've ever known," said former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, who described Paul as a friend and mentor.
Iconic American guitarist Joe Satriani called Paul "the original guitar hero and the kindest of souls."
"RHUBARB RED" TO MUSIC LEGEND
Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1915. He performed in honky-tonk bars and music halls when he was as young as 13 and dropped out of school at 17 to play in Sunny Joe Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was dubbed "Rhubarb Red."
By the late 1930s, he had formed his first trio, moved to New York and become a national radio star with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians.
It was in the early 1940s, that Paul first began tinkering with electronics and amplification because he disliked the hollow bodies on the electric guitars of the time. Their vibration led to a thin tone and feedback, Paul believed.
"What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound," Paul once said, according to a statement from Gibson.
His experimenting sometimes got him in trouble.
He nearly electrocuted himself to death at home in the 1940s, and in 1948 he was in a near-fatal car accident that shattered his right arm and elbow. But he famously told doctors to set it in the cast in a guitar-picking position so he could continue to play.
Paul also was responsible for changes in the way music was recorded with his advances in multi-track engineering, tape delay, close-in microphones for vocals and playback speeds.
As rock 'n' roll became increasingly popular in the late 195O's, his and Mary Ford's recording careers began to wane, and a television show in which they starred for seven years ended in 1960. The pair divorced in 1964.
In 1977, Paul and another legendary guitarist, Chet Atkins, released the Grammy-winning album "Chester and Lester."
He was back at the Grammy Awards in 2005 with award-winning "Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played," featuring guitarists Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards among the collaborators.
Paul is the only person to be a member in the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
He is survived by three sons, a daughter, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. A private funeral will be held in New York at a later date.