No ukulele hall of fame is complete without the inimitable Roy Smeck, a.k.a. The Wizard Of The Strings.
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, USA, on February 6, 1900, Smeck’s musical talent was obvious early on and it was fostered when he started working at a music shop in Binghamton, New York. Part of his job was demonstrating a wide range of stringed instruments, including ukuleles.
“At the store, I practiced eight to 10 hours a day until I had a nervous breakdown,” reveals Smeck in Vincent Cortese’s 2004 biography Roy Smeck: The Wizard Of The Strings In His Life And Times. “My father went to the basement and chopped up my instruments with an axe.”
Inspired by vaudeville star Johnny Marvin to improve his uke skills, Roy invented a mind-boggling array of strums and was playing professionally by the early 1920s.
Smeck’s big break came when Harry Warner of Warner Bros. offered him $350 to appear in a seven-minute movie to showcase a new sound-on-disc system called Vitaphone. The film, entitled His Pastimes, premiered on August 6, 1926 in New York City and Roy became a celebrity literally overnight.
As a vaudeville headliner, Smeck earned a whopping $550 per week and made more money on the side through endorsements, the most lucrative of which was with the Harmony Company of Chicago. In 1926, Harmony introduced the Roy Smeck Vita-Uke, an unusual instrument with sound holes in the shape of seals that proved extremely popular with the ukulele-obsessed public.
Despite his inability to read music, Smeck’s name soon appeared on a number of instructional books in various languages and, in January 1929, he presented 15-minute uke lessons on New York radio.
Smeck performed for US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and England’s King George VI in 1937, as well as for American troops during World War II and the Korean War.
However, with the advent of television, the entertainment industry had changed entirely by the mid-1950s.
“When I returned home [from Korea], many theatres had closed and vaudeville had virtually disappeared,” Smeck recalls in Cortese’s book. “With vaudeville gone, I wondered what I was going to do. So I spent four, five, even six hours a day teaching myself to read music. Then I started instructing students.”
Smeck taught ukulele, as well as banjo, guitar, steel guitar and mandolin until shortly before his death on April 4, 1994. The Wizard Of The Strings may be gone, but his frenetic, energetic, innovative music lives on to inspire ukulele players for generations to come.
This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store