Les Paul was a true disciple of the guitar, an innovator in the fields of guitar design, amplification and recording, and a consummate — and lifelong — performer.
In 2005, my wife Dinah and I had the pleasure of attending Les’s 90th birthday celebration show at Carnegie Hall. We were impressed with his humility and his sense of humor…to say nothing of his playing ability. Two years later we saw Les again, this time in the more intimate setting of the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. We had the opportunity to meet with him personally between shows, and we found him to be a gracious host and a true gentleman.
When guitar great Chet Atkins was ready to design a signature model for Gretsch back in 1954, he turned to his friend Les Paul for advice. Les had designed his namesake guitar for Gibson by that time, and Chet’s own design ultimately proved a similar success for Gretsch. The two great guitarists remained lifelong friends, and when Les came out of retirement in the mid-1970s, he teamed up with Chet for two recordings — including the 1976 Grammy Award-winning Chester And Lester album.
Anyone even slightly connected with guitars or recording owes a tremendous debt to Les Paul for his immeasurable contributions to the art and science of music. He was a genuine American original, and we will miss him very much.
The Gretsch Company
Gretsch Family Memories of Les Paul
In 1934, a young Maxine “Sylvia” Elsner (destined to become the wife of Bill Gretsch and mother of current Gretsch Company president, Fred W. Gretsch) attended the Chicago World’s Fair. She had her picture taken by a street photographer and the handwritten note “Chicago World’s Fair 1934” is the only memory that has been passed down of her visit.
At the fair a 19-year-old guitarist from Wisconsin named Les Paul was playing in a trio with Fry Peters and Joe Wolverton for the Reliance Manufacturing Company. They played at the General Exhibition Pavilion. Their style was popular hillbilly-country, jazz-flavored tunes. Les and Joe had played previously as the Ozark Appleknockers on radio shows around St. Louis and Chicago. (The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy, Robb Lawrence, Hal Leonard Books, 2008).
After the fair, Les went on to play at the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago. He would become famous in the years to come but in those early years in Chicago, he was a young newcomer to the world of music.
Bill Gretsch was also a newcomer. He had gone to Chicago around 1933 to work for his father’s company, The Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co. He was full of energy and his father, Fred Gretsch Sr., felt that Chicago offered more room for his energies than the stayed offices of the company in Brooklyn. Bill Gretsch was looking to make his mark in the family music business which his grandfather had started and his father was then running. Bill noticed the young talent of Les Paul both at the Fair and at the Bismarck and he encouraged him, introduced him to others in the business, made some connections for him in New York, and generally welcomed Les into the world of music as Bill had known it since his childhood.
When Sylvia attended the fair she knew nothing yet of Bill Gretsch. It would be another 3 years until they met and 8 years until they were married. But, perhaps, she stopped to hear the trio who played such fascinating music for the company which made “Big Yank” work shirts. Perhaps at that same moment so many years ago, young Bill Gretsch stood near her also listening to Les Paul and his friends.