Nearly every day, I am reminded what an impact Les Paul had on the world around us. As I walk through our “Les Paul’s House of Sound” Exhibit here in Milwaukee, his music fills the air, but his presence is felt in even bigger ways. Since Les helped open our Exhibit in 2008, hundreds of thousands of visitors young and old have come to know more about his life and about the creative and entrepreneurial spirit that he exemplified throughout his life. As we mark a year since his passing, I am reminded of my first encounter with Les two and a half years ago in his home in New Jersey and the way that meeting changed my life for the better.
I met Les for the first time in March 2008.
As we were ushered into his home, built into a New Jersey hillside, neither my colleague nor I knew exactly what to expect. Les shuffled out of his bedroom and joined us for his breakfast – at 3:00 in the afternoon! This was our introduction to the rock and roll lifestyle that Les had lived for 70 years – work until dawn and sleep until the mid-afternoon. And make sure that every waking minute was spent working on something.
Les was meeting us in person for the first time, and he suspected we wanted something out of him (we were, after all, from a “museum” in his home state of Wisconsin and coveted some of the copious artifacts that made his house a wonderland of history). We spent the first few hours of our conversation getting to know one another, and we got the sense he was taking measure of us. He asked questions about our facility – Discovery World – and our mission, and we answered dutifully, not knowing whether this would ever amount to anything, but we also talked about his passion for his home state of Wisconsin and our work in trying to inspire a different kind of experiential learning in people young and old.
Les was adamant that he didn’t just want his guitars and sound innovations to be placed behind glass – he envisioned an experience that helped people of all ages understand that no matter what your level of education (and Les didn’t have much formal education), asking questions and experimenting was the single most important way to learn and create. Since our mission is to educate, motivate and inspire innovators with hands-on learning and inquiry, we knew right away that we had met a kindred spirit. At one point early on in the conversation, Les pointed to a handsome guitar that was propped up by an open drawer that held all the silverware in the kitchen.
“Right there is Les Paul #1,” he said, “that is the first Gibson Les Paul ever made in 1952.”
We looked at each other in mild disbelief, aware that an errant elbow or a misplaced kitchen knife could transform this precious piece of history into twisted metal and broken wood. But this episode exemplified the real genius and essence of Les – everything about him was right in front of you, without pretense, for all to see and soak up.
Our conversation and tour stretched into the late evening, and by the time we left more than 8 hours later (close to midnight), both parties had developed mutual respect and regard. And in the ensuing 90 days, we worked together to build an exhibit that reflected both Les’ contributions to music and sound technology and his lifelong commitment to innovation. Les was one of the world’s great tinkerers, who took every day items, improved them, and made magic with them. Everything Les created or worked on has a name – “The Clunker” is the hollow body with which he made many of his greatest hits with Mary Ford, “The Thing” is one of his early sound boards, “The Ding Dong” is a string tester that he fashioned out of a door bell from his home, and, of course “The Log” is the legendary prototype for his first solid body guitar. Everything Les put his hand to and tinkered with reflects the genius in the simplest things.
The Discovery World Exhibit
The exhibit that resulted from our collective efforts – “Les Paul’s House of Sound” – allows Discovery World visitors of all ages to engage with Les in many ways – through a visit to his childhood living room and his two biggest influences – his mother and Thomas Edison; through a trip to the stage at Beekman’s Barbeque in Waukesha, Wisconsin with teenage Les appearing as “Red Hot Red:” through a trip down Route 66 and Les’ move to Hollywood with Mary Ford; and even through a video green screen “virtual guitar lesson” with 93 year-old Les. Les was involved intimately in making sure that we got the story right – and in making sure that it inspires creativity in every visitor.
We’re proud to house the world’s largest collection of Les Paul’s artifacts and the innovations that he inspired, but we are prouder to have developed a friendship with this lifelong innovator. Because the genius in Les is not in the things he did or made – the lasting legacy of Les Paul is that he spent a lifetime in passionate pursuit of innovation, improvement and creativity. Each one of us has a little bit of the spirit of Les Paul inside. His legacy to us should be that we, like him, exhibit an unyielding passion for finding and unlocking the creative spirit Les embodied from the time he was a young boy in Wisconsin until his passing in New York.