Les Paul: The Guitar Player, the Innovator and the Philosopher
"Wizard of Waukesha" may be gone, but his memory lives on in city. An exhibit is available at Discovery World in Milwaukee and there is one in the works for Waukesha.
There is no doubt that the most famous person to be born in Waukesha to date would have to be Lester Polsfuss, better known as Les Paul. Even though he moved from the town when he was just 13, he always held a special spot in his heart for his birthplace.
He began his journey away from the town to go to St. Louis when he got a job on a radio program with a friend. His mother, Evelyn, who always gave him encouragement, rode the bus with him to make sure he got where he needed to go.
"Evelyn never let any negative opinion of her son affect her," said Sue Baker, a close friend of Paul's for the last 12 years of his life.
Even though his piano teacher insisted not to waste her money, Evelyn insisted that her child was brilliant. When he was five, Evelyn contacted Kiwanis and Rotary clubs and arranged for him to sing in their programs, Baker said.
From St. Louis he ventured to Chicago and then Los Angeles, but he got his start as a kid when he was still living in Waukesha, according to Baker. He created his first solid body guitar here with the help of a hinge he took off his grandparents' barn door.
One of the many times he ventured back to Waukesha was for the grand opening of The Club 400 which his father and brother opened in 1949. He brought along his girlfriend/soon-to-be wife, Mary Ford, where they did something groundbreaking for the time, Baker said.
He was caught without a rhythm guitarist as his brother, Ralph, had decided that one was not needed. Paul asked Ford to play with him since there was another guitar in his car. This was quite unusual because women did not generally play guitars, at least not in public, Baker said.
This was not the last time he would do something groundbreaking. He also had a few inventions.
"Many people get confused and say that Les invented the electric guitar," Baker said. "That is incorrect. He invented the solid body electric guitar."
He also took the guitar from its place in the back of an orchestra, to the forefront. He also kept modifying it so he could achieve the kind of sound that he wanted, Baker said.
Paul invented an eight-track tape player, which was originally the size of a refrigerator, as well as close microphones to reduce feedback. He was even working on perfecting the hearing aid, when he died in August 2009, Baker said.
To learn more about Paul's life, Baker blogs about the Wizard of Waukesha, and the exhibit at Discovery World in Milwaukee. According to a news release from the Waukesha County Museum, a Paul exhibit is the group's top priority looking to open in 2013 either inside of the museum or at another off-site location.