By Sue Baker
Les Paul often said he learned everything he needed to know while growing up in Waukesha. I met Les Paul when I worked at the Waukesha County Museum, and wanted to put together an exhibit about him. We became good friends for what would be the last 10 years of his life (he died in 2009), and these are just some of the stories he told me.
Lester Polsfuss was born June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a city 20 miles west of Milwaukee, to a family with strong German roots. From the time he was a preschooler, Les was encouraged by his mother, Evelyn, to entertain. Les recounted how when he was 5 years old the Rotarians would lift him to a tabletop during their meetings so he could sing for them. By the time he was 8, Les disassembled a harmonica he was given to see how it worked. After reassembling it, he filled the family home with the sounds of endless harmonica practicing.
Radio was brand new when Les was growing up and he couldn’t get enough of listening to the guitar-playing country singers. When the singers came to town, Evelyn took Les to see them perform. Les wanted to be just like the guitar player Pie Plant Pete, and when the performer came to Waukesha not only was Les in the audience, he was dressed just like Pie Plant Pete, who performed in “Showboat” in a sailor suit. In fact, years later Les changed his performance name from Red Hot Red to Rhubarb Red. (“Pie plant” is another name for rhubarb.)
But playing his guitar and harmonica, and singing and telling jokes, was not enough for Rhubarb Red. As a teen, Les loved his guitar but he was sure it could sound better. After inventing a harmonica holder so his hands were free, Les pondered how to improve his guitar so he could hear just the vibration of the strings. So Les stuffed socks, rags, and a tablecloth inside the guitar. The sound was different but not quite what he wanted. Next, he filled the guitar with plaster of Paris—and that was the end of his guitar.
Les wanted the densest material he could find to build a guitar so that only the strings would vibrate. He tried a two-foot piece of discarded iron train rail. He stretched a single guitar string down the length of the rail and plucked it. What sustain! It was crisp and just the string vibrated and it vibrated a long time. It was exactly what he wanted. He ran to share his great discovery with his mother. The usually supportive Evelyn looked at her son and said, “The day you see a cowboy riding a horse with a piece of rail…” Les knew she was right, but he also knew he had the beginning of something big.
Teenage Les was playing all over Waukesha and the surrounding area. He wanted to hear what his audiences were hearing so he built a disk-recording machine using a flywheel from his dad’s car dealership, a rubber belt from his dentist, and aluminum disks for recording. By now, Les was performing on the radio and his mother would capture his performances on his recording machine.
Just outside of Waukesha was Beekman’s Barbeque, a popular destination. Les became a regular, playing for tips. Les was constantly honing his guitar playing. He built his own amplifier using parts of his mother’s telephone and radio. When someone in the back said they couldn’t hear his guitar, Les created his first electric guitar with parts from the family’s phonograph and another radio.
In the mid-1930s Les was playing country (hillbilly) music on Chicago radio stations as Rhubarb Red. He spent his nights learning jazz at clubs in Chicago and soon was performing with the musicians. It was in Chicago that he took the name Les Paul when he played jazz.
As a teen, Les played at Waukesha’s band shell, now known as the Les Paul Performance Center. It is being renovated in time for the centennial anniversary of his birthday this June 9.
Learn more about the legendary Les Paul and the launch of the Les Paul Ambassador program, a partnership with Hearing Health Foundation to spread the message of hearing protection. The Les Paul Ambassdaors are guitarist Lou Pallo, saxophonist Chris Potter, jazz pianist John Colianni, and DJ and composer Chill Kechil who was in our magazine as well as in our blog. For the full list of events to celebrate Les Paul’s 100th birthday, see les-paul.com.
Sue Baker is the program director at the Les Paul Foundation.