Les Paul and his electric guitar are famous in pop music history. But I didn’t know he
- Played the guitar for Bing Crosby
- Persuaded Bing Crosby to invest in the Ampex Tape Company.
Bing Crosby made millions of dollars from his investment and gave Les Paul one of the first eight-track recording machines.
This story is told in History of Rock, a massive open online course (MOOC) being conducted on Coursera by John Covach, professor and chair of music at the University of Rochester.
This song, How High the Moon, by Les Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, goes back to 1951. You can see the tape-recorders whirring in the 56th, 57th seconds of the clip.
Covach tells a colourful story about tape recorders:
“Tape recording was developed by the Germans during the Second World War as a way of recording Hitler’s voice when he would give his speeches to the nation. The Germans were concerned that the Americans had technology that would allow them to zero in on exactly where Hitler was when he was delivering his radio addresses to the German nation and then they would bomb that radio station and, and perhaps kill the leader. And so they developed this technology, whereby they could get lifelike reproductions of his voice, send that to a radio station while Hitler was in an entirely different part of the country. And so that if, if the station ended up getting bombed, the worst they would do is ruin a tape recorder.
“Now, the, the allies didn’t know anything about this until Germany was conquered. And they go into these radio stations and what do they see? These big reel to reel recorders there. And it turns out that this magnetic tape recording the Germans had developed this to a fantastically high degree of fidelity.
“Well, Les Paul heard about this and he told Bing Crosby this was going to be the next big thing.”
The influence of Les Paul
“There had been electric guitars before for Les Paul. Charlie Christian played one with Benny Goodman’s group. And so, it isn’t quite true that Les Paul invented the solid body electric guitar, but he was one of the first ones to be involved in engineering a kind of solid body electric guitar. He would, ended up going into partnership with the Gibson Guitar Company and they produced the Les Paul model. The Les Paul guitar has become iconic. And these developments in technology – this overdubbing, this tape technology, the development of the solid-body electric guitar – made a big change.
“Now, we couldn’t think about Les Paul as being an important figure in rock music per se, because none of his music was rock oriented. But Les Paul as a guitarist, was a fantastic influence on a whole generation of guitarists who came after him in rock and roll. Jimmy Page, people like this, were all sort of big Les Paul fanatics. The technologies that he developed will continue to influence rock and roll for many years, in fact decades to come.”