Lester William Polsfuss, the given name of guitar maker Les Paul, was a legend. His technological innovations, as a result of a sheer addiction to tinkering, were vast. They include multi-track recording, overdubbing (which he famously called “sound on sound“), tape delay, reverb, phase effects, and “The Log,” more commonly known as the solid-body electric guitar. Yes, he actually had a hand in inventing all of these now essential facets of recording technology.

When Les was a young boy, he called the vertical planks of the banister on the staircase his “wooden xylophone,” because he would play them every night before bed. At some point, he realized one was out of tune so he cut it in order to “tune the staircase.”

Les Paul

And then there are his artistic accomplishments, which are also vast. They range from the 1930s all the way to his death in 2009. In the early ’30s, he met Art Tatum and released records both as a front and side man on Decca, usually under the pseudonyms Red Hot Red or Rhubarb Red. He formed a trio with Chet Atkins’ older half-brother Jim Atkins which took him back to New York, where his knack for tinkering on the body styles of the electric guitar really took off.

les-mary                      les-bing

Throughout the 1940s, Paul played with artists such as Bing Crosby, the Andrew Sisters, and even Nat King Cole. His extremely popular guitar duo with his then-wife, country-western singer Mary Ford, sold millions of records, with many hit songs going gold and topping the charts. Here’s one of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s classics.

However, Paul, himself, considered his best accomplishment to have happened back in the ‘30s, well before he even adopted the name “Les Paul.”

His self-proclaimed greatest achievement was as a “Radio Guy” with Booger Brothers Broadcasting System: an illegal radio station he set up in his Queens apartment building’s basement, near the furnace room. The big idea was to showcase all the ridiculously great musicians in the neighborhood at the time, including Benny Goodman’s band, Glenn Miller’s band, Artie Shaw, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Fred Waring’s band, Bobby Crosby’s band (Bing’s brother), and Lionel Hampton, among a “zillion others musicians.” How cool that must have been!

Before long, Paul’s tiny basement radio operation had started to jam up the communications of air-traffic controllers at Laguardia Airport. Planes flying over Queens would get scrambled signals of jazz music mixing with coordinates from the tower.

What’s even more fascinating was that when federal agents came to Paul’s apartment to shut him down, one of them ended up becoming one of the station’s bigger fans. Together, Paul and the agent whipped up something called a “wave trap,” essentially an equalizer that got rid of certain frequencies and harmonics that cluttered the airwaves, which solved the air traffic problem!

Booger Brothers’ Broadcasting was not Lester Polsfuss’ first radio station. In his autobiography, Les Paul: In His Own Words, he describes his initial infatuation with radio, as early as the mid-’20s, saying “[radio] was like the Internet today because it connected you with things that were going on all over the country. After I… discovered the best reception was late at night, I’d use the springs in my bed for an antenna and stay up all hours listening to whatever I could find.”     bed-springs

A few years later, he started his own radio station, broadcasting to his residential block in Waukesha, WI.  “I built my own little broadcasting station there in our home… I built a little one tube radio transmitter and lengthened the antenna up to the roof so you could hear it all over the block. People would listen to it around the neighborhood and then come over to the house and talk about it.”

Yet, before all these offshore radio pirates, fighting for their political right to broadcast to open-eared, on-shore audiences, there was the land-locked local tinkerer, Les Paul. Paul’s own pirate radio hijinks were legendary. He amplified his cat, Static, who became the unofficial spokescat of Booger Brothers Broadcasting and could often be heard meowing on air.

Paul also “invented” a fictional device called the “Les Paulverizer,” which multiplied anything sent through it — usually guitars or vocals — an effect created essentially by layering recordings on top of one another. On their radio shows, this became a comedic motif, as Paul would joke that his wife could get the house cleaned faster if she Paulverized herself and her vacuum cleaner! Later on, he actually invented it!

thin-red-vinyl

Perhaps the most characteristic legacy of Les Paul’s pirate radio operation was his foresight in recording broadcasts whenever someone special came through the studio. Not only that but these rare recordings are preserved on home-printed, ridiculously thin red vinyl.

static-cat

A few years later, he started his own radio station, broadcasting to his residential block in Waukesha, WI.  “I built my own little broadcasting station there in our home… I built a little one tube radio transmitter and lengthened the antenna up to the roof so you could hear it all over the block. People would listen to it around the neighborhood and then come over to the house and talk about it.”

Those amazing musicians in Jackson Heights could do whatever they wanted on the Booger Brothers airwaves. As Paul loves to mention, “they played their hearts out.” They could play as long as they wanted and could say whatever they wanted, which may have had an effect on the populist, punkish attitudes of future pirate radio pioneers to follow. Hey, if you’re an unregulated radio station, why censor yourself?

Perhaps it was Les Paul’s influence as a DIY tinkerer, or the virtuosic integrity of the 1940s jazz musicians that willingly holed up in his basement, or maybe even the harmonically scrambled signals soundtracking so many cockpits soaring overhead throughout that time, but something that Paul was doing as a pirate pioneer influenced everything else to come.

radio-caroline

Why did music permeate pirate radio from the 1950s through the era of Radio Caroline until today, as the medium representative of free expression? Could it be that music is and always has been the language of free people — something written and performed by and for free people anywhere? Les Paul, one of music’s greatest lovers and innovators, certainly seems to have thought so.

 

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