Music legend Les Paul discovered his penchant for guitar at Waukesha Junior High in Wisconsin. It’s where his teachers recognized his curious nature, answering never-ending questions like how electricity got to light switches or why windows vibrated.
Now school officials hope Paul’s inspiration and innovative spirit rub off on current students. They’ve renamed the suburban Milwaukee school after the country and jazz guitarist, who also developed technology and recording techniques that set the standard in the music industry.
Principal Rob Bennett said it seems to be working: Paul and his innovations, like the solid bodied electric guitar, come up often.
“You can kind of see that ‘ah ha’ moment for them of, ‘It could be me, I could be that next person.’ So I think that is pretty powerful,” Bennett said ahead of a dedication ceremony Saturday (Nov. 8).
Born Lester William Polfuss in 1915, Paul built his first crystal radio at age 9, around the time he first picked up a guitar. Playing it came quickly for Paul, and he performed on the school stage that still stands today in Waukesha, about 25 miles west of Milwaukee.
He went on to develop tape echo, multitrack recording and overdubs. He was even working on improving hearing aid technology when he died in 2009, at the age of 94.
His son, Rusty Paul, and longtime business manager Michael Braunstein said Waukesha was very important to Les Paul, who also sang. He insisted on being buried there even though he lived in New Jersey.
“He would be blown away that the fact his hometown thought so much of him that they would this,” said Braunstein, the executive director of the Les Paul Foundation. “This would make Les emotional.”
The school features Paul’s quotes painted on walls, his name in the gym and a historical display. The foundation funded the transition, including sign changes, letterhead and uniforms.
The school is also working with a music education charity, Little Kids Rock, in New Jersey to train two teachers in modern band to interest more students in music, Bennett said. The Les Paul Foundation is also working with the Wisconsin Center for Music Education on curriculum related to Les Paul’s contributions to culture for grades 4 and 5.
It’s being tested at a Madison area middle school and will be available nationwide online in 2015 through the foundation’s website.
Waukesha has also honored Paul with a Les Paul Parkway, a band shell named Les Paul Performance Center and a permanent exhibit at the Waukesha County Museum.
Rusty Paul, who lives in Ramsey, N.J., said music dignitaries talk about his dad all the time.
“I miss the guy and I wish he was still here,” he said. “He was important to so many people in the industry.”