WAUKESHA, Wis. — The music icon whose solid-body electric guitar paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll is now getting a permanent exhibit in his Wisconsin hometown, after more than a decade in the making.
Les Paul, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician who performed regularly into his 90s with his band, developed technology and recording techniques that set the standard in the music industry, including tape echo, multitrack recordings and overdubs . There are permanent exhibits devoted to him at other museums, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, but he wanted something closer to home.
So he loaned the Waukesha County Museum personal items and helped raise funds to make the effort a reality, including writing a personal $25,000 check for expenses and playing a concert to raise $100,000.
“I think it’s more personal,” he told The Associated Press in 2004. “It’s going to be the best exhibit of all.”
The exhibit, “The Les Paul Experience,” is opening Sunday, which would have been Paul’s 98th birthday. Paul died in 2009.
The Waukesha County Museum originally posed the idea to Paul in the 1980s. He finally agreed in 2002, though early leadership changes and fundraising issues caused setbacks. Now, it’s now the most comprehensive account of Paul’s work and influence, said Kirsten Villegas, the museum’s president whose priority when she took over in 2008 was to finish the exhibit.
“We really wanted to make sure that people not only learned about who Les Paul was but got an appreciation for the way he lived his life, and then could take his example and hopefully apply it to theirs,” Villegas said.
Born Lester William Polfuss in 1915 to a German immigrant family, Paul built his first crystal radio at age 9, about the time he first picked up a guitar. In his early teens, his mother allowed him to leave his home in Waukesha, in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, to travel with a country band.
Paul went on to build one of the first prototypes for the solid-body electric guitar in 1941, but his work was rejected numerous times. Gibson Guitar finally began mass-producing a guitar based on his design in 1952, and the electric guitar went on to become the lead instrument in rock ‘n’ roll. He developed technology and recording techniques that influenced music recording at the time like no other.
He also earned 36 gold records for hits with his wife Mary Ford including “Vaya Con Dios” and “How High the Moon,” which both hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Paul’s right elbow was crushed in a 1948 car crash and doctors set it at an angle so he could continue to play guitar. Almost right until he died, Paul performed every week with the Les Paul Trio at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, despite painful arthritis and only being able to use his left thumb and pinkie.
He was heavily involved in many projects that featured his career, always stressing an interactive element. Among his many accolades was his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. There also are permanent Les Paul exhibits at Discovery World in Milwaukee and the Mahwah Museum in New Jersey, where Paul lived for many years.
But he wanted people to understand that everything started when he was a child in Waukesha, Villegas said. So the local exhibit starts with a re-creation of Paul’s first laboratory: his living room in Waukesha, including his original piano. It goes on to highlight how his mother supported and influenced him, his time with his wife, his car accident, his inventions, and the many rock stars he influenced along the way.
There’s a wall of mock guitars that people can wave their hand over and get an idea of how his different attempts at an electric guitar sounded. There also will be an area where people can write their dreams on a piece of paper and tack it to a wall.
Paul’s music will be played and quotations from his life are featured throughout. Among the items on display are his first professional acoustic guitar, a 1927 Gibson L-5 Sunburst Cremona; large wood sound panels Paul carved that used to be on the walls of his home studio; and the “Paulverizer,” a switch Paul built to remotely control tape machines hidden offstage. The switch enabled him to play along with a selection of pre-recorded backing tracks.
And the exhibit’s advisory board has an impressive list of names: Along with Paul’s son, Rusty Paul, it includes his godson Steve Miller, of the Steve Miller Band; ZZ Top singer Billy Gibbons; Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen; Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith; and Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, among others.
Rusty Paul said his dad wanted a permanent exhibit to reach the generations who don’t know him.
“This is the only way the legend will keep on, is if it’s exposed and seen all the time,” Rusty Paul said.
Les Paul is buried in Waukesha, next to his mother, with a 500-square-foot granite monument. In the years before he died, Waukesha officials renamed a street Les Paul Parkway and a band shell as the Les Paul Performance Center. The Les Paul Foundation also has a self-guided tour on its website that features 12 locations in Waukesha, including Paul’s childhood home and birthplace.
“We really felt that his story was the perfect model ... to tell the story about the American dream,” Villegas said, “because he really did live the life of the American dream.”