By Nick Hodgins
Jim Wysocki is a retired Mahwah police officer and was a longtime friend of Les Paul. Their friendship began when Jim was just out of high school and grew into a relationship that could only be described as family. Over the course of their 29 year friendship, Les had presented Jim with a handful of vintage guitars, artifacts, and musical relics. Jim Wysocki now displays many of these priceless mementos at a museum in Mahwah, NJ, and also shares his collection through the occasional Gibson Bus tour—allowing anyone who is interested to touch, hold, and play Les’ gear.
Born Lester Polsfuss in 1915, Les Paul was a musician, an inventor, and an innovator. He spent his life searching for the perfect sound, leading him to become one of the pioneers of the solid-body electric guitar and the multi-track tape recorder, as well as rock and roll in general. A tinkerer and a firm believer in DIY, if it wasn’t out there and he needed it, Les would make it - that’s just the kind of person he was. Les Paul died in 2009.
To celebrate Guitar Month, Jim Wysocki was gracious enough to share some of Les’ legendary gear—as well as his wonderful stories—with us. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did.
Getting to Know Les Paul: An Interview with Jim Wysocki
“Put it under your bed for a rainy day.” Those were the words Les Paul had told Jim Wysocki when he gave him his first guitar in 1981, back when Jim was just a kid. He’d hear the phrase quite a few more times as the years continued, often accompanied by another guitar. Jim wasn’t “a music guy” back then, as he phrased it. In fact, he hadn’t even heard of Les Paul prior to their first encounter.
“I was just out of high school working a desk job at the police department and I didn’t know Les Paul from the janitor down the hall,” Jim recalled at a local bar one night in his hometown of Mahwah, NJ. “He needed the number for someone to plow his driveway. I told him if it could wait a few hours I’d take care of it after my shift.”
Thinking nothing of it, he plowed the driveway and carried on business as usual, but about a week later he got a call from Arlene Palmer, Les’ girlfriend, saying Les would like to see him. Les Paul used these records as backing tracks to play along with for live shows.
“I remember heading over to the house, walking in, and being hit with this aroma. It wasn’t a stench, it was just an old house smell,” Jim described. “Arlene introduced herself and I noticed the door was about eight inches thick and there was clutter everywhere. I walked into the kitchen and there was this little old man sitting behind the counter with a guitar and he said, ‘Howdy you must be Jim.’”
It’s Pronounced DAN-Electro, not Danny-Electro
Les, not “Mr. Paul” as Jim quickly learned, greeted him with a smile, a handshake (using his left hand) and a thank you. “He told me he wanted to give me something,” said Jim, who had immediately insisted it wasn’t necessary, but Les was not one to take no for an answer. He went behind the counter and picked up a few cassette tapes, telling Jim, “This is my music and I want you to listen to it. Do you play guitar?”
“No,” answered Jim.
Les decided to fix that and handed Jim a Danelectro guitar and a receipt with three chords scribbled on the back– E, A, and D, which he showed Jim how to play. “Come back in a week and show me how you can play guitar,” Les told him.
Jim had never touched, owned, or played a guitar before that. “I got that guitar and I still didn’t know who he was,” said Jim. I just thought, “This guy is crazy. I figured I’d learn the chords, give it back to him and be on my way.”When the Danelectro isn't traveling around with Jim it rests on the wall in his basement.
But there was one other thing Les had given Jim that day which led Jim to believe there might be more to this “crazy old man.” Les gave him a bottle of champagne, and on it was written: “To my pal Jim, from Les Paul” and he made Jim promise he’d save it for a special day.
When Jim asked about the bottle, Les told him, “A few years ago I got a phone call from the airline, they wanted me to go on a plane ride, they said everyone was going to go, Eric, Jeff, Paul…you know, Clapton, Beck, McCartney. That’s where this bottle came from.”Jim has yet to open this bottle.
Well that got Jim’s attention. He went to the library, opened an encyclopedia and looked up Les Paul. When he went back the following week, he had an idea of who this man was. So he played through the chords, E, A, and D, but Les told him to slow it down, that everything was too fast. He took the guitar from Jim and went behind the counter, turning his back to him.
While Les was fiddling behind the counter Jim said to him, “I read about you, everything about you is Gibson. You designed their guitars back in the 30s and 40s; you were signed by them to endorse their guitars—so what’s with this Danny-Electro?”
Les corrected him, “It’s pronounced Dan-Electro. Nathaniel Daniels, the owner of Danelectro gave it to me as a present, it was one of their early prototypes and I want to give it to you.” Jim told him he couldn’t accept it, but Les replied, marker in hand, “It’s too late, it’s already got your name on it. Put it under your bed for a rainy day.”To Jim, Keep Rockin!
“And that was the very first guitar I got from Les, the Danny-Electro,” Jim remembered with a smirk. “It’s a 1960 model and that’s something I’ll cherish forever. That was the beginning of a 29 year relationship with Les Paul.”
It’s Not Shit, It’s Stuff
Les being such a well-known person always resulted in him receiving gifts. His house was full of stuff; everywhere were boxes, guitars, speakers, electronics, and much more. So one day Jim asked Les, “Hey what are you doing with all this shit?”Jim created a layout for some of Les' "stuff." The white pickup at the top is the first P-90 pickup ever made and the Gold tone knob in the top-center lower section was on one of the first Les Paul's ever made.
Les corrected him, “It’s not shit, it’s stuff, Jim, it’s stuff.”
“He was a collector is the way I put it,” explained Jim. “365 days a year he’d get something in the mail from somebody around the world and he would not throw it away. But after a while I told him we got to clean this stuff up, and we cleaned it up, we went through eight 40-yard dumpsters worth.”
The Guitar in the Corner
“One of the most interesting things I ever came across in Les’ house—I guess it was late in the 80s—was an old broken guitar that was sitting in a Seagram’s 7 box in a corner of Les’ basement,” Jim recollected.
Les had called Jim over late one night, along with their friend Joe, to give him a hand fixing the furnace. As they were finishing up Les asked Jim to bring the Seagram’s 7 box over, claiming, “This right here, this breaks my heart.”
“I told him it was junk,” remembered Jim, “But he said, ‘No, no bring it over.’ So I took the box over to him and he told me to open it, there was a dead mouse inside, and he said, ‘Do me a favor, take this guitar and do the right thing; put it under your bed for a rainy day when you fix it.’” Jim tried to tell Les he knew nothing about fixing guitars, but he took it anyway, placing it under his bed for that rainy day.
It wasn’t until after Les had passed that that rainy day finally arrived and Jim shipped the guitar off to Gibson to have it restored. A year later they contacted him, telling him his guitar was ready.
“I flew down to pick it up, and when they presented it to me I was expecting some brand new guitar, but here was this guitar that was rustic and old. It still had holes in the body from the bugs as far as I could tell,” said Jim.
“When the Gibson guys asked me what I thought, I told them I think it’s a piece of junk because you didn’t fix it, it’s just old,” Jim recalled. “But they laughed at me, they said, ‘you don’t know what this is.’ Turns out it was one of Les Paul’s first attempts at an electric guitar, and what I thought were bug holes actually turned out to be where he took a record player needle and jammed it in the body.”
After that, Jim took the guitar down to vintage guitar expert George Gruhn in Nashville to have it appraised, but Jim was laughed at yet again. “You got to be kidding me, I can’t even think about putting a price on this,” Gruhn told him after taking a look at it.Above is the restored L7. Check out Gibson’s Gallery of the full restoration.
“It was probably one of the most valuable guitars out of Les’ whole collection,” Jim estimated. “He gave me that guitar to bring back to life, only to find out it was a Les Paul ‘36 or ’37 L7, we’re not even sure what year it was. He actually used record player needles and jammed them into the side to make it electric.”
What Inspired Les’ Interest in Electronics?
“Les’ interest in electronics started at a very early age. He was just five years old when he saw his brother Ralph flip a light switch, and he immediately wanted to know how and why the light turned on,” explained Jim. “Back then you didn’t have breakers and you didn’t have safeguards on electrical lines; in result of that, Les was shocked many times, but he learned to respect it. Electricity nearly killed Les three times.”Featured above is an old radio, one of the many projects Les would toy around with.
The last time was at Les’ studio in 1941 when he was practicing with his bass player. With his guitar in one hand, he reached into an audio stack and had touched a live wire. He immediately suffered a severe electric shock; he was the actual ground for the circuit.
“He was being electrocuted and fell to the ground,” recalled Jim. “At first, his bass player thought he was fooling around because Les was a joker, but when he noticed Les’ eyes start to flutter he realized something was really wrong and he went and turned off the circuit. Les was so badly burned that it actually separated the muscles from the tendons in his right arm.”Les wired, wound and soldered these pickups himself before dipping them in a durable plastic coating.
That injury forced Les to take a year off from playing the guitar, which actually allowed him the opportunity to study the guitar in ways he never did before. It was during that time when Les invented two of the world’s earliest solid-body electric guitar prototypes, The Clunker and The Log.
One night in 2006 Jim received a phone call from Les asking him to get Joe and head over to the house. It wasn’t out of character for Les to call late at night, but it was out of character for Les to answer the door to his house when they showed up, usually his girlfriend Arlene answered.
The house was dark that night and Les began guiding them through different rooms, all the while pointing at things. Jim and Joe had no idea what was going on. Finally they wound up in Les’ guitar room, he kept pointing at things and he kept shaking his head.
“What do you think?” asked Les, but Jim was confused. “I don’t know,” he answered, and Les instructed them to follow him downstairs.Jim's basement is nearly a museum in itself, featuring a number of artifacts, memorabilia and photos passed along from Les Paul.
They went downstairs to the patio, sat on the couch, and Les continued, “I got a lot of pressure. A lot of people want a lot of my things, but I don’t want to give things to people that are just going to take them and go sell them for a yacht.” He paused before continuing, “Besides what I gave you and Joe and others over the years, I don’t want this stuff to be given away where people just take it and sell it off. So what are we going to do with this stuff?”
Joe interrupted, “What do you mean, we?”
Les said, “You two have been a part of this with me for a long time, I need help, what are we going to do with all of it?”
Jim remembered the look on Les’ face, he was stressed, he was genuinely worried about this, so Jim looked at Joe and he turned to Les and came up with a plan. “How about this deal, everything you gave Joe and I over the course of 20, 25 years, we’re going to make sure people see, touch and get to play your things after you pass away.”
Les Looked at them, he took his glasses off, smiled and said, “That’s a deal.”
“And that’s why we travel around and we let people play his things,” Jim explained. “I remember it being such a relief on him that he said, ‘Let’s go have a drink.’ He was so relieved; I think that took a lot of pressure off him. Some people think we’re nuts for letting just anyone touch these million dollar guitars, but like Les always said, ‘It’s only a piece of wood. Gibson can fix it.’ That’s the way it is, so that’s why we do it.”