• Hall Of Fame: Roy Smeck

    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

  • HALL OF FAME: TINY TIM

    HE WASN’T the greatest player by a long shot, but Tiny Tim is as important in the history of the ukulele as anyone else who ever picked up the instrument.

    Born Herbert Khaury in New York City on April 12, 1932, he was fascinated with music from an early age. Herbie absorbed popular tunes from the 1890s to the 1930s like a sponge and, after dropping out of high school, turned his attention to becoming a star.

    In the 1950s, American media personality Arthur Godfrey championed the ukulele, and like nine million others Herbie bought himself a plastic Maccaferri Islander after Godfrey gave it a ringing endorsement on the air. It was the second uke Herbie owned, but it wouldn’t be the last. For most of his career, he played a Martin soprano, although towards the end of his life he also strummed a concert resonator that was given to him by his third wife on his 64th birthday.

    Following a lot of ups and downs (mostly downs) in the ’50s, the artist now known as Tiny Tim started to make an impact in the thriving Greenwich Village music scene of the early ’60s. Towards the end of the decade, everything was going right for Tiny. In 1968, he released God Bless Tiny Tim, the album that included his biggest hit, Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me, and he played a once-in-a-lifetime show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. On December 17, 1969, Tiny married Victoria Budinger aka Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in front of 40 million viewers, cementing him as one of the best-known men in the world.

    Over the succeeding decades, Tiny’s fame waned and society’s perception of him changed. Still craving the spotlight, he was happy to be thought of as nothing more than an oddity – anything to keep him in the public consciousness.

    With the Third Wave of Uke came fresh opportunities for Tiny. He started appearing at festivals, but his health was on the decline. At the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum’s Ukulele Expo ’96 in Massachusetts, Tiny had a minor heart attack and collapsed on stage. On November 30, 1996, following a gig at The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis and still holding his Martin, he suffered a massive heart attack and died.

    From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, the name Tiny Tim was synonymous with the ukulele, much in the way George Formby had been in the 1940s and Jake Shimabukuro is now. At a time when the instrument was taking a back seat to the guitar and electronic music, Tiny was proudly flying the four-string flag. No matter what you think of his music, he was the bridge between the Second and Third Waves, and for that KAMUKE thanks him. God bless Tiny Tim.

  • Hall Of Fame: George Formby

    BORN George Hoy Booth on May 26, 1904 in Wigan, England, one of the greatest ukulele players who ever lived almost didn’t pick up the instrument.

    The son of an Edwardian music hall star who never wanted any of his family to enter show business, George was forced to become an apprentice jockey at age seven and rode in his first professional race when he was 10.

    Following his father’s unexpected death in 1921, George was encouraged by his mother to perform his dad’s old material, so he took to the stage. Spectacularly unsuccessful at first, he bought a banjo-ukulele from a fellow actor and accepted a bet that he wouldn’t play it in his act. Naturally, the audience loved the uke and George was soon topping the bill all over the country.

    By 1932, he had adopted his father’s stage name of ‘Formby’ and had his first hit record with a funny song called Chinese Laundry Blues. In 1934, George starred in a high-grossing comedy called Boots! Boots! and subsequently signed a contract worth an incredible £100,000 to make a further 11 films with Associated Talking Pictures. He later agreed to make another seven movies for US studio Columbia for the mind-blowing sum of £500,000.

    With the help of his shrewd wife Beryl, George Formby became the top comedian in Britain between 1934 and 1945, and also found considerable fame in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In 1946, he received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his tireless work entertaining Allied forces in Europe and North Africa during World War II. In fact, he was one of the first entertainers to enter Normandy after the D-Day invasion, where he was personally invited by General Montgomery to play for the frontline troops.

    In 1951, while starring in a critically acclaimed West End musical called Zip Goes a Million, Formby suffered a heart attack and was forced to leave the show. He went back to work 18 months later, but it didn’t last as long as it should have. After another heart attack, George Formby died on March 6, 1961, aged 56.

    But even though the great man is gone, he’ll never be forgotten. Songs such as Leaning On A Lamp Post and The Window Cleaner have become timeless classics, and ukulele players everywhere have been trying to emulate his legendary ‘split stroke’ for more than 70 years. To quote his much-loved catchphrase, “It’s turned out nice again!”

  • HALL OF FAME: TROY FERNANDEZ

    By Cameron Murray

    THE first time I heard the Ka‘au Crater Boys’ On Fire, I nearly fell off my chair. Who were these guys? And, more importantly, who was their ukulele player? In more than a decade of being associated with the uke, I’d never heard anything quite like it. The technique, the precision, the sheer joy of it! To this day, On Fire is one of my all-time favourite instrumentals.

    I later found out the talented musician behind the ukulele was Troy Fernandez. In the early 1990s, Troy and his surfing buddy Ernie Cruz Jr (who sadly passed away recently) became the voice of a new generation of Hawaiian performers as the Ka‘au Crater Boys. The duo recorded four popular albums and won three Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards – the Hawaiian equivalent of Grammys.

    “I started playing when I was nine years old because in Hawaii every school has a fourth grade ukulele class,” Troy tells me. “When I got to middle school, I started watching Peter Moon and Eddie Kamae, so they were my heroes when I was young, mainly Peter Moon.”

    Troy started his first band when he was 13 and quickly landed a high-profile gig opening for Australian pop queen Helen Reddy at the Sheraton Hotel in Waikiki. “I was actually playing upright bass in the group because my friend was way better than me on ukulele and guitar,” says Troy. “They thought we were just kids running around. Our name was Us and we had tight three-part harmonies, good vocals, good music.”

    Troy and Ernie had been playing together for about a decade before the Ka‘au Crater Boys came into existence.

    “We were known as ET – Ernie and Troy,” explains the 53-year-old. “We started playing in clubs and I said to Ernie, ‘If we keep doing what we’re doing, one day someone’s going to come through the door and they’re gonna want to record us.’

    “That happened and then I told Ernie, ‘I don’t think we should use the name ET because if we get really big we might get sued by the movie guys!’ So Ernie said, ‘I know a name – Ka‘au Crater Boys!’ We’re from Palolo and deep in the valley, there’s a crater called the Ka‘au Crater. I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter what our name is, it’s not going to change the way we play.’”

    Soon enough, the Ka‘au Crater Boys were making waves on the music scene and Troy’s exciting playing style was causing a ukulele resurgence in the islands, particularly among young people.

    “We would go surfing at Hanalei Bay in Kauai and there would be some kids under a tree playing our songs!” says Troy with a grin. “Then we’d go surfing in Hilo on the Big Island and we’d be passing kids and they’d be playing our songs, too. So we found out that everywhere we go in Hawaii, there are kids trying to learn our songs.”

    So what does Troy think of the Third Wave Of Uke, a movement he helped kick-start with his astonishing skill on four strings?

    “There are so many good players, it’s amazing!” he replies. “So many ukulele makers. Everyone is playing the ukulele now, everyone around the world is picking up the ukulele.”

    As our chat comes to an end, I ask Troy if he has any advice for aspiring performers. “Never give up!” he beams. “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”

    This article first appeared in Issue 10 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store