Gibson Guitars declared 2013 as the Year of Les Paul, so here is a jaw-dropping discovery with a Detroit connection to the famous guitarist and Mary Ford early in their careers.
As the singer closed a set of pop tunes sprinkled with country-western hits, she noticed a sharply-dressed older man striding confidently toward her from a center table. For the next several nights, Mary Ford, her husband guitarist Les Paul, and their bassist, were to call a Detroit restaurant lounge their home, performing as the Les Paul Trio. As the gentleman waved down the singer, he revealed expensive cufflinks on his shirtsleeves while inviting her and her husband to join him and his wife at his table.
Les Paul had recorded instrumental hits for Capitol Records since 1948, including pop standards such as “Lover” and “Nola” featuring groundbreaking multiple (overdubbed) guitar tracks. With Ford singing, the couple scored their first top ten vocal hit in early 1951 with the country-western song “Tennessee Waltz” (shut out of the number one spot by Patti Page‘s version for Mercury Records). They had more in store for ’51, including the number one “How High The Moon.” It is likely they met Detroit composer/publisher/record label owner Lou Parker before then.
At Parker’s table, Paul and Ford dined at his expense. Parker and his wife returned night after night, eventually persuading the musicians to visit his office at the Music Hall building on Madison Street. During their booking in Detroit, the trio recorded two of Parker’s songs. Although unconfirmed, it sounds as though Paul overdubbed his guitar, producing two guitar parts trading solos. As with her Capitol recordings, Ford sang with her mouth very close to the microphone.
In late 1951, Parker issued a disk of the Les Paul Trio’s Detroit recordings on his Citation label, calling the performers The Humdingers. The record received an above-average score from Billboard magazine on December 29. As was the case with other productions on Citation (often due to less than adequate promotion), the record didn’t sell well.
In 1953, Detroit guitarist Al Allen met Lou Parker at a recording session for cowboy singer Bob Quinn. Among other songs, they were scheduled to cut “The Things You Used To Say,” which appeared on The Humdingers disk. Parker casually mentioned that Les Paul and Mary Ford also cut the song for him. Allen, a longtime and devoted fan of Paul’s, questioned Parker further, and he brought him a copy of The Humdingers record. (As far as we know, Parker did not issue Quinn’s version of the song.)
We don’t know if Parker hired Les Paul and Mary Ford to make demonstration recordings, or if they understood Parker intended to issue a commercial record. In any case, after their string of major hits in 1951, Les Paul and Mary Ford probably didn’t make recordings such as these while contracted to Capitol Records again.
Around the same time as Les Paul and Mary Ford, Detroit country act Roy Hall and the Cohutta Mountain Boys recorded three records for Citation, under the alias “The Eagles.” Detroit western bandleader Jack Luker (who used his own name) made two with members of the Cohutta Mountain Boys. The Cohutta Mountain Boys’ and Al Allen’s stories will appear in the book “Detroit Country Music – Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies” in 2013 from University of Michigan Press.