This past Saturday, I was fortunate to be in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to take part in the dedication of a memorial to Hall of Fame inductee Les Paul. The memorial is in Prairie Home Cemetery, where the legendary guitarist is buried. The event was attended by Les’ family and friends, including his son Russ. Michael Braunstein, Les’ longtime manager and the executive director of the Les Paul Foundation, served as the emcee of the event. Others in attendance included Lou Pallo, who played guitar in the Les Paul Trio for almost 30 years, Henry Juszkiewicz, the chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar, and Ron Sturm, the owner of the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, where Les played shows every Monday night, from 1995 until his death in 2009.
All of the speakers heaped tons of praise on Les. His son said, “He was a person who hit a lot of hearts,” and that was clear from the commentaries. Lou Pallo said: “He was a genius. He was a great, great, great musician.” Gibson’s Juszkiewicz also called Les a “genius,” and he talked about his inventiveness. Speaking about the house where Les lived in New Jersey, the Gibson CEO said: “Everywhere in that house were inventions. His mind was always going.” He also characterized Les as an “astute business person. He knew what was happening in business. He was a renaissance man.”
Michael Braunstein recalled talking to Les in 2007 about where he wanted to be buried: “He said he wanted to be here in Waukesha. He wanted to be with his mom, he wanted to be back home.” The memorial surrounds the grave of Les, who died in 2009 at the age of 94, and the grave of his mother, Evelyn Stutz Polsfuss, who died in 1989 at the age of 101.
The memorial was commissioned by the Les Paul Estate. Rock of Ages of Barre, Vermont, designed, built and installed the 500-square-foot granite monument. It includes a biography of Les, as well as a list of his numerous awards. “The memorial shares Les’ legacy with all who visit the site,” said Braunstein. “Les chose to be in Waukesha. We know the people of his hometown will cherish this site as Les Paul cherished his hometown.”
“We wanted to extend his legacy,” Les’ son said. “He was someone special. He was someone we all loved. And he was someone we all miss.”
Les Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. In 2008, less than a year before his death, he was the Museum’s American Music Masters honoree. He came to Cleveland and took part in the all-star concert. The show featured a who's who of guitar players, including Slash, Duane Eddy, Billy Gibbons, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Richie Sambora, Lonnie Mack, James Burton, Lenny Kaye and Steve Lukather.
Over the years, Les was very generous to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. However, the first time we approached him, back in 1994 before the Museum opened, he said he was giving everything to the Smithsonian Institution. I would call him from time to time, trying to see if I could change his mind. Then, one day he called and said he was coming to Cleveland and wanted to see the Museum I kept calling him about. I said yes, and gave him a tour. It was a busy summer day, and many of the visitors came up to him and said "hi." At the end of the tour, Les said: “You are right. This is where my stuff belongs. If I gave my things to the Smithsonian, I’d be lucky if they put one guitar on the wall, and it would be next to Judy Garland’s red slippers and no one would care about my guitar!”
I then proceeded to make many visits to Les’ house in New Jersey. I picked out several cool artifacts, including a prototype of the Les Paul model guitar and a guitar he called the “Clunker,” which he said was the guitar he used the most onstage and in the studio. We mounted a fabulous exhibit on the Museum’s second floor, and Les and his trio came out to play at the opening. The exhibit is still in the Architects of Rock section of the Museum, and if you have not seen it, you should check it out. Les Paul was a great man, and I am so honored to have been able to get to know him over the years.
WATCH: Legendary guitarists talk about Les Paul