Tom Peters- My Les Paul Story

Les Paul with the Pulverizer

Les Paul with the Pulverizer

“I lived in Mahwah in the ’70s and my father was a metallurgical scientist at a research lab in nearby Sterling Forest, NY. One day, probably in 1976 or so, Les Paul showed up at the reception desk of the research lab asking if he could speak to a metals expert.  This was rather unusual, but my dad was the metallurgist who eventually came out to help.  Les and my dad started talking and my dad found that Les had a lot of interesting questions about a metal alloy that he wanted to use for a new guitar pickup he was designing — the alloy needed to have certain properties for the pickup to work as Les wanted, but he didn’t know which alloys could work.  My dad listened and provided some advice, and Les went on his way.  But Les came back to the research lab a few more times over the next few weeks to follow up, and my dad graciously continued to provide his expertise.

At some point, my dad mentioned this at the dinner table, and mentioned that the guy’s name was “Les Paul.”  I should explain that my father knew nothing of contemporary music, unless it was contemporary in the 1700 or 1800’s.  So when I heard at age 13 that it was the great Les Paul, I said, “Dad, do you have any idea who you’re talking to??”  To which he replied, “Yeah, some guy who just wants to pick my brain.”  I proceeded to explain who Les Paul was and why he was important, but it went completely past him.

Now here’s where the story gets interesting:  A year or two later our next door neighbor, Mr. Morrison, had a health issue and found himself in the hospital in Ridgewood.  He was in pre-surgery and was coincidentally sharing a room with Les Paul.  For this part, I don’t fully know what happened and can only repeat what I was told, but the story goes that Les Paul and Mr. Morrison started talking and discovered that they both lived in Mahwah.  That broke the ice, so they were able to go a bit past being just polite “roomies”.  As they talked more and got to know each other, Les eventually told Mr. Morrison that the surgery he was about to undergo was extremely risky (I believe his condition was heart-related), and the doctors in Ridgewood were predicting only a 50% chance of success.  Mr. Morrison apparently convinced Les to get a second opinion.  As a result, Les called off the surgery, found an expert in Cleveland, and learned that he had been misdiagnosed.  So Les was eventually fine, didn’t have risky surgery, and was forever grateful to my next door neighbor for his potentially life-saving advice.

After that, Les started coming by our neighborhood in Scotch Hills fairly often to visit Mr. Morrison.  One day, he pulled up to the curb in his big white Cadillac, saw my father working in the yard, and recognized him from the research lab a couple years back.  Until that moment, neither knew that the other also lived in Mahwah.  Les was still playing with different metal alloys for his new pickup design, so he made the most of this rather unlikely coincidence — when he visited Mr. Morrison on weekend afternoons, often he would also stop by our driveway to “pick my dad’s brain” a little more.  I would sometimes listen in on the conversations, although I can’t say I understood much of what they were saying most of the time.  But Les would often acknowledge me and try to include me in the conversation.  At one point, Les Paul invited my father and our family to his house — he wanted to show us his studio!  But unfortunately I wasn’t listening in on that conversation, so I was not aware of the invitation — or my father’s “no thank you” — until several years later.  To this day I bring this up with my father, but it’s water under the bridge, so all I can do is look at the floor and shake my head.

But I’m pleased to report that my father now fully appreciates the greatness of the man to whom he contributed his metallurgical expertise.  I don’t know if any great guitar innovations resulted from their conversations, but at least I can say that I “knew” the great Les Paul, if only briefly.”

It sure would have been awesome to have seen that studio, though….”

Tom Peters