Roy Smeck (born Leroy Smeck, 6 February 1900 - 5 April 1994) was an American musician. His skill on the banjo, guitar, steel guitar, and especially the ukulele earned him the nickname "Wizard of the Strings."
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Smeck started on the vaudeville circuit. His style was influenced by Eddie Lang, Ikey Robinson, banjoist Harry Reser, Johnny Marvin and steel guitarist Sol Hoopii. Smeck could not sing well, so he developed novelty dances and trick playing to supplement his act.
Smeck was one of only two vaudeville artists to play the octachordia, an 8-string lap steel guitar. He was introduced to the instrument by Sam Moore when he played on the bill with Moore and Davis in 1923. His 1928 recording of Sam Moore's Laughing Rag, played on the octachorda, is considered a classic of slide guitar.
Like so many of the performers during the era, he was a big fan of the instruments created by the C.F. Martin & Company and used a variety of their instruments. Smeck, like other performers, was unsuccessful in obtaining an endorsement deal with Martin, who limited their support to a 20% discount for all performers. As a result, he endorsed the Harmony and Gibson guitars and Harmony ukuleles. Smeck was also known for his work on the Harmony company's Vita-Uke along with a number of other version sold with his signature across the headstock.
Smeck was not a vocalist, to compensate he developed a large number of novelty items for his act. In addition to playing the ukulele with his teeth, he would play it behind his back or even use a violin bow.
Smeck was an early radio performer, putting together acts for appearances across the country. Almost all of them had his name in the band title, including The Roy Smeck Trio, The Roy Smeck Quartet, Roy Smeck and his Vita Trio, Roy Smeck's Novelty Orchestra and Roy Smeck and His Music Men.
On 15 April 1923, Stringed Harmony, a short film starring Smeck made in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process, premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York City.
On 6 August 1926, Warner Brothers released Don Juan starring John Barrymore, the first feature released in the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. On the program was a short film, His Pastimes, made in Vitaphone and starring Smeck, which made him an instant celebrity.
Smeck appeared in the film Club House Party (1932) with singing star Russ Columbo. He also appeared with Columbo in That Goes Double (1933), which featured Smeck on a screen divided into four parts, simultaneously playing steel guitar, tenor banjo, ukulele, and six-string guitar.
Smeck played at Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential inaugural ball in 1933, George VI's coronation review in 1937, and toured globally. He appeared on television on variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and Jack Paar.
Inventor and instructor:
Smeck designed and endorsed the Vita-Uke and other stringed instruments marketed by the Harmony Company of Chicago. He made over 500 recordings for various companies, including Edison Records, Victor Talking Machine Company, Columbia Records, Decca Records, Crown Records, RCA Records and others. He also wrote instruction/method books and arrangements for the instruments he played.
Later life and recognitions:
A documentary by Alan Edelstein and Peter Friedman about Smeck and his career, The Wizard of the Strings (1985), was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary, and won an award at the Student Academy Awards.
Smeck died in New York City at age 94.
In 1998, Smeck was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame. His citation read, in part, "the 'Wizard of the Strings' captured the hearts and minds of audiences for more than six decades." He was posthumously inducted into the National Four-string Banjo Hall of Fame in 2001.
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