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Much of the sound of both “popular” and “country” music today comes from the partnership of a man and woman in the early 1950s. While Les Paul was the technical innovator, he wisely partnered with Mary Ford to record and broadcast the culmination of his innovations as beautiful music. Their performances and the public’s enthusiastic reaction, were the greatest sales pitch in the world for a new generation of musicians to adopt the guitar technology and recording and voice microphone techniques. The couple’s recording and touring career was eventually a victim of their success, as other performers took their innovations and carried them further, but their records and television show performances, preserved on video recordings, still please modern ears.
A statement about Les Paul and Mary Ford on the Les Paul website, seems boastful, but is demonstrably true:
Today’s leading recording artists know that their sound is built on the genius inventions of the Wizard of Waukesha and his stellar performances with wife Mary Ford.
What’s your favorite memory of playing with Les Paul?
My grandmother turned me on to Les Paul and Mary Ford way back in the day when I got a Les Paul copy guitar and she said, “Les Paul isn’t just the name of a guitar, it’s actually the name of a musician, a designer,” and all that stuff. That was the first time I ever heard him play, through one of [her] records.
So when I first got a chance to meet him and play with him at Fat Tuesdays in New York [in the late ’80s], I was eager to do it. I was really nervous. We were just winging it and, basically, the term I always use is that he just wiped the stage with me. I couldn’t keep up with him. That was really inspiring for me and so I started practicing and taking certain aspects of my playing more seriously and use jamming with Les Paul as a benchmark of how my playing had improved.
A rock star just saying nice things? Consider the assessment of Les Paul and Leo Fender in the Birth of Loud:
“The Birth of Loud” traces the dual arc of the men’s rise with consummate skill and authority. Although they were close for a few years in the late 1940s (Port writes that, tantalizingly, Paul turned down a position with Fender in 1951), and would be forever linked in their fame, they were in many respects opposites. [Leo] Fender was a taciturn man who could be found tinkering in his laboratory until late at night, whereas Paul was a showman, a musical and technical whiz who, with his wife, Mary Ford, was one of the biggest stars of the postwar, pre-rock ‘n’ roll pop era.
…In 1960, now-forgotten surf icon Dick Dale pushed Fender’s amplifiers to the limit and beyond during his thunderous concerts at a roadhouse in Orange County, called the Rendezvous Ballroom, thus inventing a style of music that was specifically built on excessive volume. And the 1966 recording of John Mayall’s album “Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton,” in Port’s estimation, was a ground-zero moment when the signature sound of an overdriven Les Paul – “a molten, billowing wail” – was first recorded.
Step back a decade from Clapton and Dale. Here is the dawn of multitrack recording, being demonstrated to the nation on television:
Mary sings a duet with herself, made possible by playback of her previously recorded harmony or backing vocal track. Les Paul is not playing all the guitar notes live. He too has laid down the rhythm or backing guitar tracks. Here is another of their early hits, with Mary singing a duet with herself:
Les Paul and Mary Ford used moveable multitrack recording equipment at home, out of the control of established music recording professionals. At the start of the duo’s career, they sang, played, and bantered on a 15-minute daily radio show. Their product sold so well, they so dominated the hit charts, that the duo got a daily five-minute television show, recorded at home, with them performing a song in the middle of domestic chit chat. This was All-American, good, clean entertainment. It was also showing aspiring musicians and industry people the commercial success of Les Paul’s innovations.
Mary was also an accomplished guitarist. The duo seems a genuinely warm couple, playfully playing together. Consider this live show:
Mary Ford was given her stage name by Les Paul as a publicity gimmick, pairing two short stage names. When they were dating and performing together, Mary was driving when they had an accident that permanently limited Les Paul’s range of motion in one arm. He had the doctors set his right arm at an angle that would let him play guitar, and did so for the rest of his long life. Les Paul married Mary anyway, and they made beautiful music together until they divorced in the early 1960s. The music scene had moved away from them, propelled by Les Paul’s guitar technology, vying with his contemporary, Leo Fender, as well as their innovations in multitrack recording and how singers use microphones.
I leave you with their biggest hit, “Via con Dios,” presented in one of their five-minute television episodes: