Les Paul and Mary Ford: is it still possible to be successful and truly experimental?

A year or so ago, I wrote a blog about how the singer Rumer sounded like Karen Carpenter  – and how the music industry could be seen to be using  a proven formula (i.e The Carpenters) to sell the public music. This is not the topic of this blog – but more related to taking this theory back a few years – this time to the relationship between The Carpenters and the Les Paul/Mary Ford duo. I have been a big fan of Les Paul for most of my adult life – but have always listened to his records with a ‘guitar head’ – ie his amazing solos and use of technology for overdubbing. However, when one listens to Mary Ford’s vocals – they have, to my ears at least, a clear relationship to Karen Carpenter. For example –

‘I’m a Fool to Care’ (1954)
For me, this has not only similarities in vocal timbre, but also in the use of technology to create those amazing vocal harmonies, made famous in songs such as Goodbye to Love
Goodbye to Love (1972)
How high the moon
In both cases, these harmonies only exist in a virtual space – as they are multiple instances of the same singer/singers. I write this, as it is interesting to trace what I would call the ‘primary signification’ of influences such as this (where these is little difference between the sound and what it stands for – for me at least). Taking this thought process back a stage further – the same influence can also be heard between Les Paul’s guitar style (both rhythm and lead) and Django Reinhardt – see the examples below

The Sheik of Araby

For me, these sort of relationships can be viewed from two perspectives
1) the authentic influences of the artist, who have simply listened to the influence and therefore begin to sound like them (ie Les Paul and Django)
2) the music industry machine – where the artist is ‘told’ to sound like another artist or incorporate a specific style (examples to numerous to mention)
If an artist is fortunate enough to be able to be successful and portray their ‘natural’ influences – and these influences resonate with the industry,which in turn have the potential to resonate with the public, all well and good. My question is – are opportunities like this becoming rarer and rarer? Is it only possible to obtain success by positioning your music into a ‘category’ (be it sound, dress, style, etc)? I realise this is always been the case to a greater or lessor extent – so am interested in examples of music that break this pattern. What music is out there that is truly experimental and ground breaking?

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Musicology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Les Paul and Mary Ford: is it still possible to be successful and truly experimental?

  1. It is no big revelation to educated fans that Les Paul and Mary Ford had a HUGE influence on the Carpenters, Richard in particular. He is the creator of their sound, and he has acknowledged their influence publicly time and time again. As a child, Richard was obsessed with the overdubbing technique that Les Paul created. He also has said that if there was one voice that he believed Karen’s voice was similar to, it would be Mary Ford. This should be no surprise, since she as a small child she tagged along and listened to the same musicians that her brother did. Just as you did with your article on Rumer, you imply that some big corporate machine steered their sound in a commercial direction. Do you know nothing about how the Carpenters (like Rumer) were DEFINITELY swimming upstream at the time their first recordings were released? The Carpenters were mocked and derided for their sound. Do you think a record company would take some unfathomable risk by steering an unproven artist to be COMPLETELY different than everyone else on the charts? “Gee, the masses are listening to Led Zeppelin and Hendrix – Let’s sign an act that has nothing in common with what everyone is buying these days!”? Ridiculous. These artists were INFLUENCED by those who came before – What artist isn’t?
    Some of your big “revelations” are not revelations at all.


  2. carza says:

    You are absolutely correct – they are not revelations. They were not meant to be – they are simple truths that have been around for many many years. I will state one again (for the last time) – this was not meant to be personal. It was a 2 minute blog I posted over a year ago that I thought no one would read. I was certainly NOT intending to make any ‘big revelations’. Everyone is entitled to their opinion – you may not agree – that’s fine by me.


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