Man and Woman at the Dawn of the Electric


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.

Here is Slash of Guns ‘N Roses in a Billboard interview:

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:


Published in Group Writing
Ricochet editors have scheduled this post to be promoted to the Main Feed at 5:00PM (PT) on May 5th, 2019.

There are 15 comments.

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  1. Arahant Member

    Nothing like a bit of history in the morning.

    • #1
  2. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    A man and woman, making beautiful music together.

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the April 2019 Group Writing Theme: Men and Women

    May’s theme is now up, and the days are being rapidly filled: May 2019 Group Writing Theme: Blooming Ideas. Do stop by and sign up!

    • #2
  3. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Nothing like a bit of history in the morning.

    Don’t know much…

    • #3
  4. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue

    Thank! I currently play a Les Paul solid body bass, a “Goth”- matte black. It’s the best bass I’ve ever owned, even better than the old Univox. His hollow body guitars, though, for me, those will always be the jazz guitar sound without peer. 

    • #4
  5. WillowSpring Member

    I can remember watching them on TV when I was a kid.  I was fascinated by the ‘behind the scenes’ demonstrations of their techniques.

    • #5
  6. Goldwaterwoman Thatcher

    Wow. The Tennessee Waltz is one of the first songs I remember hearing as a small child. 

    • #6
  7. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    I can remember watching them on TV when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the ‘behind the scenes’ demonstrations of their techniques.

    Thanks for this comment. It seems to reinforce my claim about salesmanship, about influencing a new generation of musicians.

    • #7
  8. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD

    The Gibson guitars have always been very traditional.  And for good reason — they created the traditions.  They’ve been in business over 115 years.

    So Gibson defined the iconic arch top f-hole jazz guitar.  In shape, sound, design, construction, and woods  (mahogany neck, back, and sides, maple top, rosewood fingerboard, neck glued in).


    The Les Paul guitar was basically a solid body version of that.  The same construction, the same woods (mahogany solid body with a carved maple top), smaller since it’s solid.  Very similar sound.


    Fender did all of that differently.  Solid piece of ash or alder for the body, maple neck, it bolts on, and the fingerboard is the neck.  Much easier to manufacture. The sound is much brighter, sproingier, and it was more suited to the country music that Leo Fender loved, and less for jazz.

    Friendly competition is a good thing.

    • #8
  9. Rodin Member

    I discovered Les Paul and Mary Ford probably about 1962 at my uncle’s house. My brother and I would spend a few weeks with him and his family in the summertime. He had a few Les Paul/Mary Ford LPs that I would play. I loved Mary’s voice. I took Les’ guitar artistry for granted at that age. 

    • #9
  10. EJHill Podcaster

    And behind all of this was the Old Groaner.

    Bing Crosby was always a sucker for a good jazz guitarist. He was devastated when his friend, Eddie Lang, died of complications of an appendectomy at the tender age of 30. 

    After the war Les Paul and his trio were working as staff musicians at NBC where they ran into Crosby. After hearing a rousing jazz rendition of Back Home Again in Indiana, Crosby asked the name of this group.  Les replied, “The Les Paul Trio. We’re on staff at NBC.” Bing responded, “Not anymore. You’re working with me.” 

    He invited Les onto the Kraft Music Hall a half dozen times and skyrocketed to the top of the charts in backing Bing on one of the greatest hits of 1945:

    Because Bing knew of Les’ desires to find his own sound and was searching for bold new ways to record, Crosby gifted him with one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel recorders. From there, Les tinkered with adding additional recording heads until he got Ampex to help him produce the first multi-track recorder.

    • #10
  11. Suspira Member

    Clifford A. Brown: Much of the sound of both “popular” and “country” music today comes from the partnership of a man and woman in the early 1950s.

    It’s good to know who to blame.

    • #11
  12. Juliana Member

    Thank you for the Tennessee Waltz. It was the only song my dad would dance to, so my mom would request it at every wedding we went to when we were kids (and seems like we went to a lot of weddings).

    • #12
  13. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward

    Great post Clifford!  I always liked Les and Mary.  Their music is very pleasant and stress-relieving.  I was tremendously surprised when Conan O’brien had Les Paul on a few times as a guest.  Apparently Conan plays guitar and was a big admirer of Les.

    A quirky place where Les Paul’s influence shows up is on my all-time favorite TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies!  Soothing-style electric guitar music in the manner of Les Paul is often played during interludes of the action especially when people were strolling through the house or walking  out  to  the “ceement pond.”

    • #13
  14. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck

    Morning Clifford,

    Perfect way to start the week, the Absolutely Live clip is super.  I am enough of a geezer to have seen Les and Mary on TV, at the time I noticed the echo effect on Mary’s singing more than what Les was doing.  The first jazz guitarist with which I became familiar was Charlie Byrd, somehow I missed how influential Les was and would be.  What Les had that was part of big band and early rock, was a sense of fun, and the pleasure it was to play and entertain.

    • #14
  15. TBA Coolidge

    ty for this, I was aware of them but didn’t know enough. 

    • #15
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