Multi-talented guitarist, singer, and actress Mary Ford has a shared, yet often unsung, musical legacy alongside her longtime partner in melody and matrimony, the legendary guitarist Les Paul.
Ford, born Iris Colleen Summers in 1924, spent a bulk of her life performing music. As a child, she sang gospel hymns in Nazarene churches and on the radio with her family. She spent her late teens and early 20s singing country and western music in vocal trio the Sunshine Girls, often backing singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely. In the late 40s, she displayed her acting chops on Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage’s radio program, The All-Star Western Theatre. It was through her career in early country music and connections to singers Gene Autry and Eddie Dean that she joined her future husband’s group, the Les Paul Trio.
By 1949, Summers was adopted the stage name Mary Ford after Paul turned to a phone directory to find a short, memorable name to differentiate his partner’s new pop-oriented music from her country past. Under this moniker, she went from a background vocalist to the forefront, singing and playing alongside one of the seminal names in guitar history.
The duo had an impressive string of hits in the 1950s. Their collaborations often blurred the lines between then-popular genres, recording versions of country (“Tennessee Waltz”), pop (“Mr. Sandman”), and jazz (“I’m Sitting on Top of the World”) standards. Original compositions such as the bluesy “Deep in the Blues” and the rock ‘n’ roll inspired “Send Me Some Money” further diversified Ford and Paul’s back catalog. Most of these songs were recorded at home or on the road by the couple, with nascent multi-tracking techniques often making Ford sound like a one-person duet.
As the 1960s neared, Ford and Paul were among the fading stars swept aside by the surging interest in rock music and teenage culture. Following the couple’s divorce in 1964, she continued to perform, albeit sparingly, with her sisters. She died in 1977 from complications due to diabetes.
While Paul’s legacy as a luthier and inventor was being cast in stone, Ford helped him reach pop stardom in the 1950s with her smooth vocal delivery, lifetime of performing experience, and platform as one of the most visible female guitarists in mainstream music. By being at the forefront of Paul’s recording career, Ford indirectly pioneered changes to guitar performance and gear for all players that followed.