Part IV – Roy Smeck
Talking With: ROY SMECK
NOTE: I was fortunate to have been a student and friend of the great Roy Smeck – “Wizard of the Strings” in the 1980’s. Roy was a star performer in vaudeville and films playing banjo, uke, and Hawaiian guitar and guitar…a truly historic figure in early popular music. Beyond his hundreds of recordings and dozens of method books, he designed the unique “Vita-Uke” and was one of the first performing artists to have named instrument model endorsements. Roy’s 1933 appearance in That Goes Double was the first use of split-screen editing and multiple soundtracks to create a “one-man” group…predating Les Paul’s own multi-track recordings by 10 years. His appearances included President Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural, his own New York-area radio progam in the 1930’s and early TV variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen and Jack Paar…he was even a musical guest on “Captain Kangaroo”!
This interview I conducted with Roy was published in the September 1984 edition of The Resonator, the official publication of Banjos Unlimited. I was flattered when Roy told me it was the best and most accurate interview about him he had seen. It is reproduced here by permission in it’s entirety with some minor corrections to the original version.
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Endeared to banjo players and students through his personal appearances, recordings and films, Roy Smeck has been an outstanding pioneer with fretted instruments. His books are still widely sold and his name has appeared on numerous instruments and accessories. He was the first musician ever to use multi-tracking for Paramount Films, producing a quartet with Roy playing all four instruments. He also played with the USO camp shows in World War II and in Korea.
This interview was conducted at Roy’s home in New York City, where he continues to teach and retains the sparkling personality that has helped make him so successful.
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TR: I guess we’ll start at the beginning. How did you begin your career in music?
RS: My father bought me a guitar when I was 15, showed me three chords and from then on I taught myself. I remember learning a song off a record in 1917 by the Royal Hawaiians on Victor, and after that I just kept picking things off records that I bought. I didn’t even read music until the 1950’s.
TR: When did you pick up the banjo?
RS: About 1919 or 1920. I had heard a record of Paul Whiteman’s band playing “Whispering” and “Japanese Sandman” with Mike Pingatore on banjo. He didn’t play any outstanding solos, but his rhythm was the backbone of Whiteman’s sound and from the time I first heard it, I knew that I had to pick up the banjo.
TR: Your first record was in 1922. You had to have been a fast learner.
RS: At first, I practiced so much that I wore myself down and had a nervous breakdown. My father was so upset that he got rid of all of my instruments. After I recovered, I couldn’t stay away from music, so I got a job at a music store and during hours when it wasn’t busy, I would sit and play. Well, one day an agent came in from RKO theaters and the store owner, Mr. Williamson, told the agent I should be on the vaudeville circuit. So I played “12th Street Rag” on uke and harmonica at the same time, which was one of my routines. The novelty was that I played four fretted instruments which no one else did. About two weeks later, two more agents came in. They gave me a tryout with a 3-day booking at the Halico theater near 139th Street. It went over really well, but at that time I had only a few solos. I worked out a few more and they booked me at $250 a week, where I had been making $20 a week at the store.
TR: Then you started right out touring in vaudeville?
RS: Well, you’d start out playing Albany, Amsterdam, Ithaca…those were all small-time 3-day bookings. You’d work your way up into big time…they booked you for a week at a time.
TR: How did you get up to the big time?
RS: I was living at the Knickerbocker Hotel on 47th Street at the time; playing Allentown, York, Harrisburg, Johnstown, Altoona…see, I still remember them all! Well, one morning my phone rings at 2 A.M. The hotel manager, a friend of mine, says that the Warner brothers are downstairs and I should bring down all my things and do my act for them. Let me tell you, it was easier playing to an audience of 6000 than playing for those two men. As I was playing, they smoked their cigars and kept looking back and forth at each other. Once again, it was the harmonica and uke that did it. As soon as they found out about that, they invited me to the Manhattan Opera House for a screen test, and they said it was a tryout to be in the first talking picture in the world. I almost fell off my chair! I made it, and it opened at Warner’s 52nd Street. (Giuseppe) Martinelli and myself got the biggest write-ups, even bigger than the Philharmonic or Mischa Elman. I was up on the screen with all those classical musicians just as a novelty, but it went over big. The second night my agent told me to go to the theater, and I found that they had put a big picture of me in front of the place. After that, I played big time and got $1250 and engagement…and this was 1926! I didn’t play any better for $1250 than I did for $250, but I wouldn’t argue with $1250.
TR: I read that you played the Coronation Revue in 1937. How did that come about?
RS: I had just played the interstate tour and was back in New York at the Rivoli. In those days, it was called a “presentation house”. That means they had the motion picture, an orchestra of 35 or 40 men and then several acts; usually a singer, comedian and a music act. A fellow named Mr. Black, who was second only to Ziegfeld as a producer at the time, came backstage. Now at this time, uke was really big in England. He was representing the London Palladium and asked me if I would play as part of the command performance for the coronation in a show called “Swing Is In The Air”. I was so afraid of the boat ride that I brought along an ex-sailor friend to keep me calm. After 2 days on the boat, he was sick and I was running around on the ship playing ukulele. That was just the start. In England, Decca records had me record 8 songs for them. Then Francis Hunter Music (who is like Schirmer here in the U.S.) asked me to write a couple of books. My friend who came with me could read and write music, and I couldn’t at that time. I didn’t know G from H, and believe me sometimes it sounded like H. So he helped me put together the first books.
TR: Your books are very well-known. Which one is your best seller?
RS: For 12 years, my best seller has been the “4400 Chords for Guitar”, which has sold over 147,000 copies. I have written books on every instrument I play, even one for Montgomery Ward 40 years ago, and that sold a lot of copies. The most recorded song I ever wrote was “I Love to Hear a Banjo”. On guitar, I wrote “Waltz Italiano” and “When Will You Know”, and “Uke Said It” and “Magic Uke Waltz” on ukulele.
You know, I have the privilege of being the first person to have his name appear as music arranger for songs by Irving Berlin. I was teaching his daughter ukulele (she was going to be in a Broadway show) and to thank me, he allowed me to do arrangements of his songs for uke, baritone ukulele and guitar. It was a very good break for me because I got 9 other books through doing that one.
TR: You recently did a book of Harry Reser’s banjo solos for Mel Bay.
RS: Harry Reser was my inspiration for the solos and books I’ve done. Hew was the greatest ever. I did 4 or 5 books with him over the years in addition to the one for Mel Bay. In fact, Harry played on my first LP album on the song “South Street Serenade”. He plays the uke on that song and he did all the band arrangements for that record. That was a big thrill for me.
TR: We mentioned Irving Berlin and Harry Reser; you must have worked with some big name entertainers.
RS: I did 6 weeks with Martha Raye and she was fantastic. I did a movie with Henny Youngman and we became friends then. I was also good friends with George Raft. Guy Lombardo and I played with his group at a big party once with Guy on sax, Vincent Lopez on piano and myself on banjo. I made records with Cab Calloway and the Ames Brothers when I was with Decca. One of my favorite jobs was in Atlantic City at the Steel Pier with Abbott and Costello. I must have laughed from the time I first walked in right to the day the engagement finished. I was good friends with the Three Stooges from the vaudeville tour and I did a film with Russ Columbo. I guess I did meet a few people.
TR: How did you come to have your name put on all the instruments?
RS: That began with Mr. Day of Bacon and Day. He caught me backstage in Boston, mentioned that he had seen me in the movies and offered me a royalty agreement. They made 3 models – $340, $640 and $950 plus $50 for the case. Some years later at the Orientale Theater in Chicago, Mr, Krauss, president of Harmony company, made me a similar offer for Hawaiian guitar, uke, banjo and guitar. By that time I had the whole act, including 50 uke solos, “Yes, Sir That’s My Baby” in 12 countries, the 3-banjo effect, the talking Hawaiian guitar on “Mama Blues” and Bill Robinson’s stairs routine on uke. And after all that, I can only ask one thing: How long can I keep fooling them? (Laughs) When I was playing for $550 a week in New York,, my agent asked if I would consider an out of town job for $300 if they put up my name in extra big lights. I said that if word got out that I was playing for less money, I’d find it very hard to eat those electric light bulbs.
TR: When did you make your first record?
RS: In 1922, I accompanied Sam Moore; he was the inventor of the octachorda. I played the saw with a bow. We did “Old Pal of Mine” and “I Dwelt in Marble Halls”. That was under my given name, LeRoy Smeck. My agent and I cut it down to just “Roy” because you stood a better chance of headlining if your name was easier to fit on the marquee.
TR: How many records have you made?
RS: I made 142 78’s. My biggest seller was “Memories of the South” which I did in 1923. I also had a big one with “Ghost of the Banjo”; that was on Victor. I recorded on 15 labels – first on Vocalian, then with American Record Company who made records on the Perfect label. About that time I gave the initial break to Gene Autry, who started with recordings on Perfect then got into movies because American owned Republic Pictures. They had me on other labels: Oriole, Domino, Banner. I had other names, too, like Prince Kalua or Kalini and his Hawaiians.
Later I made 10 albums for ABC-Paramount, then I did some others for Columbia, MGM, a re-issue album for Yazoo, and my most recent studio album for Blue Goose. I almost forgot Capitol. There was one for Columbia where I was Prince Kalua again because I was under contract to ABC and we couldn’t use my real name. I was Prince Iakahiru, Kaluma…but my fans knew it was me. They still bought the records.
TR: Any final words to the readers?
RS: Practice! Each and every day you should try to learn something new and review your regular numbers. I tell this to every one of my students. This way if I ever forget one of my solos, I can call up my students and let them teach it back to me. (Laughs)
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Thanks to The Resonator & Banjos Unlimited (Frank Rossi, Editor) for their kind permission to re-publish this interview.
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For further reading on Roy Smeck, I recommend the following:
Roy Smeck: The Wizard Of The Strings In His Life And Times
Author: Vincent Cortese (iUniverse)
The definitive and complete biography from another friend & former student of Roy.
The Guitar Players: One Instrument and Its Masters in American Music
Author: James Sallis (Morrow)
12 biographies of seminal figures of guitar, including Roy Smeck.