Les Paul was often called rock royalty.
Born in Wisconsin in 1915, Paul was a Midwestern jazz man who went on to make high-polish 1950s pop recordings, a style of music that was snuffed out by the reckless energy of rock 'n' roll.
Still, the rock demi-gods of the 1960s and '70s adored Paul for what he handed them, the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, a beast of an instrument that has endured through the years whether the band on stage was Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols or Green Day. The six-string became such an American institution that, like Levi Strauss, Jack Daniel's and John Deere, it became more a symbol than a mere brand name.
Paul's legacy is a broad one: part artist, part inventor. Paul was also a master picker, one of the best of his generation, and was often cited as a major influence on other more famous guitarists, including Chet Atkins, who called Paul "one of my idols."
Still, it is Paul's innovations that put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They include an early solid-body electric guitar as well as new ways to create multiple tracks and echo effects for recordings, which he applied with memorable effect to his recordings with his then-wife Mary Ford.
At one point, 13 consecutive Paul-Ford tunes sold more than half a million copies. The couple became so popular that from 1953 to 1960 they hosted a five-minute weekday TV show from their home.
The couple recorded "How High the Moon," which was made with a dozen overdubs, and stayed at the top of the charts for more than two months in 1951. The "new sound," as Paul called it, allowed fresh renderings of songs like "Mockin' Bird Hill," "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" and "Tiger Rag," as well as another big hit, "Vaya Con Dios."
But the great success the couple shared ended abruptly with the arrival of rock 'n' roll.
As Mary Alice Shaughnessy wrote in her 1993 book "Les Paul: An American Original," "The electric guitar that Les had done so much to popularize was becoming the instrument of his professional doom. Les and Mary's sweet sound and down-home stage patter were simply too quaint for modern tastes." The couple divorced in the mid-1960s; Ford died in 1977.
Through the years, the guitars with Paul's name on them became so popular that he was routinely — and wrongly — cited as the inventor of the electric guitar, an error that spoke to the ubiquity of his brand.
"When most people think of the electric guitar, they think of Les Paul," said Dan Del Fiorentino, historian for the National Assn. of Music Merchants, a trade group for the music-products industry. "He wasn't the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, but he certainly made it famous."