Jump to content
Gibson Brands Forums

Les Paul <story of his car accident>


Recommended Posts

I am sure there are quite a few members that are unaware of the story of Le Paul and his car accident. Searching through some stories, I found this and thought I would post it. I just copied and pasted it from the article.

Pretty amazing actually.




Car Wreck!

In the late 1940’s, Les Paul’s career was starting to soar to new heights. He had been successful breaking into the Los Angeles music and radio scene; building up his reputation, his professional contacts, and continuing to invent and improve sound/music techniques. By January 1948, Les Paul and Mary Ford had been together for two years and he decided it was time for her to meet his family. Making a road trip out of their time off from Capitol Records, Les and Mary hit the road out of California for Waukesha, Wisconsin.



By the time Les and Mary stopped in Flagstaff, Arizona, it was clear that Les was running a fever. Les went in to see a few doctors, but they could not give an accurate diagnosis of his fever, so Les decided to wait till he could get back to Hollywood and rest up. Their visit to Waukesha went well; however, even though Les usually did all the driving, Les was too ill to drive home. Mary would have to make the long trip to California, through a January winter, with Les lying in the front seat. They ran into a winter storm and came to an area where a railroad track crossed under a highway, between the cities of Davenport and Chandler Oklahoma, when Les heard Mary scream and felt the car swerve. Les quickly shot up from his seat, kicked Mary’s foot off the brake and managed to straighten out the car a bit, but it was too late. The last memory Les had of the accident is saying to Mary, “This is it,” and throwing his right arm around Mary to protect her face. News articles reported that the car went off the side of a railroad overpass and dropped 20 feet into a ravine. There were no seatbelts and Les, Mary and all their music equipment went through the roof of the convertible as it dropped down to the frozen river below, landing upside-down. In this case, Les believed that the lack of seatbelts may have helped them survive the crash. Since the car had also downed telephone and telegraph lines, the phone company sent out work crews which then came upon the car accident; otherwise, there might not have been help for Les and Mary for a long time in that storm. Even still, Les and Mary had to wait in the snow eight hours for help.



Mary was thankfully not seriously injured. Les, however, had six broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, broken vertebrae, a punctured spleen, a broken nose, and hurt collarbones and shoulder. His right arm, the one he protected Mary with, was shattered along with a crushed elbow. He had also contracted pneumonia. Les Paul was in bad shape; he nearly died. Most doctors may have amputated the arm, but Les’ doctor, Dr. Robert Knight, was determined to save the arm. At this point, after several dark first few weeks in the hospital, Les decided to persevere and not listen to those who told him that he may never play guitar again. After several surgeries, Les was flown back to California to see a bone specialist. In Ca, Dr. McKeaver replaced Les’ right elbow with a piece of bone from Les’ leg, but there would be no elbow joint; meaning that once Les’ arm was set, it would stay in that position. So Les told Dr. McKeaver, “Put my forefinger in my bellybutton when you set it. That’s how I hold the guitar, and I’ll still be able to play.” The doctors still were telling Les that he may never regain full use of his hand, but he wasn’t listening. Les was determined to be able to play again, and after over a year of recuperation and adapting to the change in his arm, Les was not only able to play guitar, he went on to hit the top of the music charts with Mary Ford.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thank you, Brc, for sharing this report here. I knew that his right elbow joint wasn't working after a car accident but didn't know how it had come.


His story gave and still is giving me hope six and a half years after my then-wife hamstringed my right hand by consciously tearing off the suture two days after my carpal tunnel surgery of my right hand. It's still not sure I will be able to take my right hand with me in my grave.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for posting that brc. [thumbup] I'd read it and heard it before, especially the part where Les told his Doctor how to "freeze" his arm so he'd be able to play guitar again. As with a lot of things about Les, it's always interesting.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 5 years later...

Seeking the location of Les Paul’s 1948 automobile accident

A recent surgery reminded of the Les Paul story so I went looking for information on his crash site. This thread on the Gibson Forum has more detail than I've come across before and I was pretty stoked to learn that I had lived not terribly far from where the accident location was when I lived in Chandler, Oklahoma. The problem is, I don't think it's correct. The story says that the accident occurred just west of Davenport, Oklahoma. so let’s start there.

In 1948, Route 66 came into Davenport from the north and then took a 90-degree right turn on 6th St. to continue west about 1000 feet before crossing over the Newkirk-Shawnee branch of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad. The vehicle would not likely been traveling very fast at that point and the road is dead-straight. There is no watercourse there either, so I would disagree strongly that Davenport is the actual crash location.

The next Hwy 66 railroad intersection - also a highway overpass - is at the north end of Chandler, Oklahoma. Again, no watercourse so that location can be excluded.

The next Hwy 66 railroad intersection is at Warwick, Oklahoma about 14 miles west of Davenport. There, Hwy 66 goes through an underpass - vice overpass of the story. That section of road is very straight coming westbound from Chandler before entering the section of road at Warwick that s-curves under the railroad before crossing over the Deep Fork river. That is a slippery road in winter and with the low visibility of a snow storm it would be easy to enter the first left-hand portion of the s-curve and then have problems with the immediate right curve and leaving the road and then crash into the river. In terms of proximity to Davenport, that might be the location of the Les Paul accident site.

But… there is one more possibility 25 miles to the west of Davenport where Hwy 66 once again crosses the railroad at Luther, Oklahoma - on an overpass just as the story description goes - before crossing the river. Just after that overpass, old Hwy 66 used to swing to the north in a curve to cross over another railroad line before swinging south again and heading straight west. That curve has long since been bypassed by a re-alignment of Hwy 66 but it is easily visible on Google Earth/Maps, Bing or whatever aerial viewing method is available. In a storm, low visibility and a tired driver it could easily lead to a vehicle not following the curve adequately and sliding off the road into the river.

Davenport site:  35°42'35.41”N,  96°46'6.56"W
Warwick site:  35°40'50.51”N,  97° 0'31.52"W
Luther site:  35°40'0.98”N,  97°12'3.68"W

So which is it? Warwick or Luther? The drop to the river at either Warwick or Luther is about twenty feet. That follows the story description well enough leaving only the type of rail intersection as either overpass (Luther) or underpass (Warwick). For an accident victim sitting in the river for eight hours, the details might be somewhat murky. If the accident was correctly remembered as an overpass, then the location is probably at Luther. If the railroad intersection was actually an underpass, then the accident was probably at Warwick. The Luther location is quite a bit further to the west from Davenport making the Warwick location somewhat more probable in reference to the Davenport location. With no remaining persons that would have had first-hand knowledge of where the crash site actually was there is no way achieving a definite answer. It’s unlikely that there is still paperwork archived somewhere from the telephone or telegraph firms, that could reveal the truth. It’s been 71 years.

The only thing that all three crash site possibilities have in common is that they lie to the east of the Oklahoma City area where repair crews for the downed telephone and telegraph lines would have been dispatched. To the repair crew on winter roads, it might have seemed as far as Davenport.

So… where do I come into all of this? I had an accident in 2005 that damaged both hands during the process of retiring and moving to a location a few miles west of Chandler, Oklahoma. I’ve been up and down Hwy 66 in both directions with Warwick on one side and Davenport on the other side an through Luther many, many times. Every time we traveled that road we unknowingly passed by the crash site - wherever it really is. In 2019, my hand injury finally caught up with me at surgery number seven. I had my right wrist fused in December 2019 and because I play guitar and whatnot, I asked that the wrist be set at an angle allowing me to continue playing - just like when Les Paul asked that his elbow be re-built at an angle that would let him continue playing. That is what got me into seeking an answer to a question that probably cannot actually be answered.

Up to this month, I've never owned a Gibson guitar but I did finally buy a nice used blue Gibson ES-137. I should have bought a Gibson years ago...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...