Friday, July 12, 2013

FORGOTTEN ONES: MARY FORD

Les Paul is considered a legend and the genius behind the electric guitar, and rightfully so. However, when Les Paul was racking up the hits in the early 1950s, the vocalist on his hit recordings was his wife at the time Mary Ford. Unfortunately no one seems to remember her much.

Mary Ford was born Iris Colleen Summers in El Monte, California on July 7, 1924, the second daughter of Marshall McKinley Summers (1896-1981),a Nazarene minister, who later became a painting contractor, and his wife, Dorothy May White Summers (1897-1988), and was the sister of Byron Fletcher Summers (1918-1994), Esther Eva Summers Wootten (born 1922), Bruce Wendell Summers (1929-2007) and Bob Summers (born 1938). Ford came from a musical family, and her parents left Missouri, traveling cross-country while singing gospel music and preaching at revival meetings across the United States. They eventually settled in Southern California, where they were heard over KPPC-AM, Pasadena's first Christian radio station. Her sisters and brothers were all musicians; Esther, Carol, Fletcher, jazz organist Bruce and film composer Bob Summers.

After being married two other times, she met guitarist Les Paul. By 1947 Summers became romantically involved with Paul, whose first marriage to Virginia M. Webb was failing, as it could no longer endure the stresses and strains of his show-business career.In January 1948, while traveling on Route 66 through Oklahoma, the couple’s car driven by Summers skidded off the road and plummeted 20 feet into a frozen creek bed. After the accident, Summers identified herself to authorities as Iris Watson.Among Paul’s many injuries, his right elbow was shattered, and it would be eighteen months before he could play guitar again After Paul's wife Virginia took their two sons to Chicago, Summers moved in with Paul in his house on Carson Avenue, where she took care of him as he recuperated from the effects of the car accident.


By July 1949 Summers was performing under the stage name of Mary Ford. To avoid confusing her established western music audience, initially Paul named his musical partner "Mary Lou", but later selected the stage name "Mary Ford" from a telephone directory so her name would be almost as short as his. In 1949, Paul and Webb divorced, and he married Ford on December 29, 1949 in a "small private ceremony without much fanfare" in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ford and Paul had three children: a baby born on November 26, 1954, who died four days later; Mary Colleen Paul, who they fostered since 1958; and Robert Ralph "Bobby" Paul (born in 1959).

After extensive touring and recording, the couple decided to leave Hollywood and moved to New York City to make the crossover from radio to television. They took a cramped apartment in Paul’s former New York neighborhood, where they conceived and recorded their arrangement of "How High The Moon", a hard-swinging multi-layered arrangement containing twelve overdubs using the guitar and Ford’s voice. While Capitol was reluctant to release this song, after they had scored several more hits with Capitol, including, 'Tennessee Waltz" and "Mockin’ Bird Hill", "How High The Moon" was released in March 1951. Within a month, "How High The Moon" and "Mockin’ Bird Hill" captured The Hit Parade’s number 1 and number 2 spots, respectively. Paul bought a Cadillac to use on their expanding road tours with plenty of space for all their electronic gear. In September 1952, after cutting "I'm Sitting on Top of the World", Ford and Paul sailed for London to appear at the Palladium Theatre, where they debuted before Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family.

In 1953 the couple recorded "Vaya con Dios" (Capitol 2486), the biggest selling song of their career, which was released in June 1953, entered the Billboard charts on June 13, 1953, and reached number one on August 8 and remaining there for a total of nine weeks. The song lasted thirty-one weeks on the charts, but with the advent of rock 'n' roll, they faded from the charts.


In October 1963 Paul initiated divorce proceedings in New Jersey against Ford, on the grounds of adultery and cruelty, claiming she had committed adultery with cowboy singer Foy Willing during a three-year affair and also with building contractor Donald E. Hatfield, and "other various men"; had neglected the care of their children; and had humiliated him in public by boasting of her affection for other men and claiming that he had abused her. While not convinced that her husband was in a current sexual relationship with Ford, Sharon Lee Willing, alleges her husband and Ford had a sexual relationship during their time together on The Hollywood Barn Dance in the mid-1940s; that Ford had a proprietary interest in her husband, often phoning him in the middle of the night; and that her husband recommended his own attorney to Ford to handle her divorce, but that the lawyer eventually resigned as Ford was always drunk, often obstinate, indecisive and forgetful about details in their meetings. After dropping his charges of adultery and desertion, on December 17, 1964 Paul was granted an uncontested divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty and granted custody of their son.

Mary Ford never had any singing success like the recordings she made with Les Paul. She made a couple of solo recordings, and then created a singing group with her sisters with little success. In 1965, Ford married for the fourth and final time to her childhood sweetheart from back home. As she got older, Mary did not take good care of herself. After falling into a diabetic coma, Mary Ford died eight weeks later on September 30, 1977 at the young age of 53. She might have had personal problems as we all do, but her vocals should be remembered. She deserves to not be hidden in the shadow of a genius like Les Paul...

11 comments:

  1. This is interesting. I had a vague knowledge about Mary Ford's life, but this summarized it very well. Thank you for posting it.

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  2. Much of the above is totally false, however, the last sentence in the last paragraph says it all. Vaya Con Dios, Aunt Mary!

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    1. Suzee, I discovered your Aunt Mary's beautiful voice just a few months ago. I now own around 7 record albums of Les & Mary, plus one solo album of Mary's. I enjoy Mary's vocals so much, she had a quiet intimate sound, kinda makes me think of Karen Carpenter. Honestly Les' guitar playing on some of the records sounds so gimmicky. Mary's voice is the saving grace on the records, I really don't care for Les' guitar solo recordings. I prefer Chet Atkins over Les'....I read a book on Les to get info on Mary. It seems he treated her cruelly at times. When she miscarried their baby girl, instead of letting Mary rest, he takes her on a tour overseas to search for recording equiptment, etc. Mary was promised by Les to allow her to retire from touring when she turned 30 in 1954, but his ego wouldn't allow her to retire. Sad that he remembered but Mary is overshadowed by his legend....

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  3. Hi Suzee,
    I would love to talk to you to change any major mistakes in the story or pubished an entirely new story. If you get a chance you can email me at dlobo74@gmail.com.

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  4. Love Mary Ford's beautiful voice, I recently found her solo Lp "A Brand New Ford". Even though Les was a genius with the inventing of the overdubbing, solid body electric guitars, etc, I find his solo stuff just too gimmicky! Mary was the true star of the duo. I find it very sad that she isn't remembered for her contributions to pop music. She should be up there with Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand, Karen Carpenter and the many great female vocalists of all time.....

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  5. This is my favorite Les Paul & Mary Ford story - transcribed from a Les Paul box set:

    THE DAY MARY FORD MET LES PAUL

    In 1945 Les Paul had been performing jazz on NBC radio with his trio, but he
    thought it might be a kick to do a few hillbilly shows just for old time's
    sake.

    Problem was, Les needed a singer, and when he ran into his childhood idol Gene Autry one day in Hollywood, Gene offered a solution - a singer who had worked with him.

    Gene said, "I know just the gal you're looking for. She sings good, and she's
    good-looking".

    He told Les her name, Colleen Summers, and gave him her phone number. But when he called her, she didn't believe it was Les Paul.

    Mary said, "I know you're pulling my leg because I'm a Les Paul nut".

    Les said, "Well, whatever you are, I am Les Paul, and I'm asking you over to my studio."

    She said, "Well, I'll go that far anyway."

    That night, she drove from El Monte all the way over to Les' place in
    Hollywood. When she got there, Les was mowing the front lawn by flashlight,
    wearing army shoes and a flannel shirt.

    Mary said, "Can you tell me where the Les Paul studios are?

    Les said, "Yeah - right behind the house. Go down the driveway and you'll run right into the garage. Just holler, and they'll lift you through the window".
    The door was sealed up so there was just the window.

    So Colleen went back there, and the guys lifted her in. Now the guys in the
    jazz trio were good players - they could also play country just for kicks, and
    they began to rehearse Mary.

    She started singing with them, then said, "Where's Les?"

    "He'll be here any minute now", they reassured her.

    Then when Les climbed in through the window, and she said, "Well, I see the
    gardener, but where's Les? [laughs]

    "That's not the gardener", the guys told her. "He's Les".

    She said, "You're putting me on. this must be a gag."

    So Les asked her to wait a moment, then picked up his guitar and played a
    couple of runs.

    "Satisfied?" he asked.

    Mary said, "Well I'll be darned - you a-r-e Les Paul! [laughs]

    That's how Mary met Les Paul, and then she did this series of hillbilly shows
    with him. For those, Les named her Mary Lou - that's where Mary eventually
    came from. After those gigs, Mary didn't work with Les professionally for
    another four years. She was country, and he was doing jazz and increasingly, popular music. But their romance took off immediately. Mary and Les started going together right after that rehearsal. She was such a groupie - to her, there was no other guitar player in the world. The only thing on her mind was Les Paul. So from the time they met, it was right on.

    Les said, "We were just meant for each other. That's all there is to it."

    The rest is musical history.

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    1. I've only heard of Les Paul together with Mary Ford like they were one unit.

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    2. Thank you . . . that's the way I remember the story also. Les Paul and Mary Ford were my aunt and uncle. My mother, Esther Williams (not the swimmer), was Mary's oldest sister. Growing up our family was surrounded by music as the family all played instruments and/or sang, some professionally. Not only was Mary's voice amazingly beautiful, but she was a kind and loving person and very fond of pulling pranks.

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  6. I remember hearing her music play at my Grandpa's house as a child. He loved that woman so much! Donald E Hatfield was my grandfather. He passed away 2 years ago :'( he's in heaven with his wife now :-)

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  7. I remember Mary Ford as she was a friend of an aunt of mine when they were living in N. Jersey. Mary and Les (at times) gave my aunt free guitar lessons. My aunt got pretty good and tried teaching me but I couldnt hack it. Anything I ever heard from my aunt about Mary was always positive and that is the way I will remember her and my aunt as she too is passed on. JP>

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  8. I remember Mary Ford as she was a friend of an aunt of mine when they were living in N. Jersey. Mary and Les (at times) gave my aunt free guitar lessons. My aunt got pretty good and tried teaching me but I couldnt hack it. Anything I ever heard from my aunt about Mary was always positive and that is the way I will remember her and my aunt as she too is passed on. JP>

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