Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Before Lady Gaga, there was Roy Smeck

 ... and way before rock began to roll,
Roy Smeck was a rock star.

Roy was a multi-instrumentalist, a touring musician,
a movie star, an instrument builder and a technological
innovator pioneering possibilities that would become
industry standards.

He made over 500 recordings, starting with Edison,
and later for Victor, Columbia and Decca.

He became a virtuoso on the guitar, the lap steel,
the banjo and the harmonica, but it would be
another instrument that would take him
to the top of the musical world.

Roy Smeck was a monster on the ukelele.

Born at the turn of the century in Reading, PA,
he became obsessed by music as a kid. His father
taught him everything he knew, which added up
to 3 chords and Roy took it from there.

He started out on the vaudeville circuit,
where over time his live performances
would feature moves that seem familiar to rock and blues
audiences 50 years later, including:

- a variety of dance steps

- flipping the harmonica over with his tongue
  and pretending to swallow it before popping
  it back to his lips.

- play various instruments behind his back
  and on top of his head.

- spinning the ukelele around, blowing across the sound hole,
  plucking the strings with his teeth and tongue, bowing the strings
  like a violin and creating sounds behind the bridge and nut.

- and imitating the sound of fellow star performer
  Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tap dancing, on the ukulele.

Small wonder he was known as "the Wizard of the Strings"
or that his tours would include venues like Radio City Music Hall
in New York, The Steel Pier in Atlantic City and the London Palladium...
and command performances for US president Franklin D. Roosevelt
and King George V of the UK.


In 1926, he invents the rock video appearing in one of the first
sound films ever made by Warner Brothers.

By 1933, he's featured in "His Pastimes" - a revolutionary Paramount
short where the screen was divided into four parts, with Roy playing steel guitar, tenor banjo, ukulele and six-string guitar simultaneously.

It was multi-tracking... ten years before Les Paul.


Somewhere along the way, he saw Sol Hoopii perform.
Hoopii was a native Hawaiian, and is often called
the finest lap steel guitar player in history.

His music had a profound effect on Roy. Hawaiian music
became his obsession. He worked his way deeply into the
music, integrating it into his sound and played a key role 

in celebrating Hawaiian music and bringing it to a larger
audience that exists to this day.


One guitar book calls Roy "the king of the artist models", with good reason.

In the late 1920s, Harmony Company issued the Vita-Uke,
an instrument invented by Roy.

They introduced a Roy Smeck signature line with a Hawaiian guitar
in 1930. Soon, that line would include ukuleles, guitars and banjos.

When the Gibson Guitar Company released its Roy Smeck
Hawaiian acoustic guitar in 1936, it was only the second artist
signature model in their history*. 


Generations of ukulele and banjo players came to know him
as an inspiration and mentor. When he was touring, he often
put on workshops, appeared free at music stores, and held talent
contests for local players.


He wrote instructional books for his
friend Mel Bay's
publishing company and he welcomed younger players
all his life.

During the second world war and later in the Korean War,
Roy toured with USO shows to play for GIs from Greenland
and Iceland to Korea and Japan.

Over time, Roy became better known among musicians
than the public at large. When Yazoo began re-issuing
some of his early work in the 70s, a whole new generation
of acoustic musicians - including Robert Crumb -
were introduced to his work. 


Dr. T. at Mississippi Moan summed it up beautifully...

" he was the fellow who described his ascension
in the music industry thusly:

"I didn't play any better for 1,250 dollars
than for 150 dollars.

Which goes to show that even he truly considered
what he did "playing," no matter how miraculous
it sounded."

want more Smeck?

Roy Smeck at Wikipedia

- 30 -


No comments:

Post a Comment