From the Fall 2014 issue of Ukulele | BY MARCY MARXER
A visionary player on the ukulele, guitar, tenor banjo, and lap-steel guitar, the vaudeville performer Roy Smeck certainly earned his nickname “Wizard of the Strings.”
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1900, Smeck gained notoriety in the 1920s on the vaudeville circuit as well as on radio. He was a delightful player who wrote dozens of instructional books, and inked deals with Gibson and Harmony to have instruments produced that bore his signature. Beating Jimi Hendrix to the punch by several decades, Smeck pioneered a comic style of playing stringed instruments behind his head and with his teeth, much to the delight of audiences. (Globe-trotting acoustic guitarist Bob Brozman once said of Smeck that he played as if he’d had his sense of taste surgically removed.)
In 1981, I was playing ukulele, mandolin, and guitar with an old-time string band that toured extensively. I stopped at as many thrift stores and yard sales as possible looking for old records and music books. Roy Smeck’s recordings and books were everywhere and I collected them. Soon I learned that he was still alive and living in New York City. I knew I had to meet him! So, I put all of my money into a doubled paper lunch sack, grabbed my ukulele and my $10 Radio Shack tape recorder, and took the bus to the Big Apple.
I went to a phone booth near 34th Street and looked up his name in the big paper phone book—there were a couple hundred listings for R. Smeck. I took out my paper lunch sack of coins and started calling names in order. Finally, on the 19th try, the phone rang three times and Roy’s wife answered the phone.
“Hello, is this the home of Roy Smeck, the famous ukulele player?” I asked.
“Yes, it is,” Smeck’s wife replied.
I explained who I was and said I was hoping to meet the ukulele legend. Mrs. Smeck gave me the address and I took off running down the street.
They lived in a fourth floor walk-up on 43rd Street, and when I arrived Roy was sitting in a chair by a window in a room set up for teaching. Sheepishly, I asked if he would give me a lesson and he agreed. “So, what do you want to know?” he inquired.
“I want to play the ukulele just like you,” I responded.
“Awwww, you could never do that! That’s too difficult for you.”
“Then how about teaching me your version of ‘Bye Bye Blues?’”
“Oh, you can’t play that!” he exclaimed. “You’ll never practice!”
After giving it some thought, Roy leaned in and whispered like he was letting me in on a secret. “OK, the first thing you gotta do is this,” he said, sticking his lips out as he plucked a string. I did my best to imitate that comical expression.
Next, Smeck lifted his ukulele up to his face and blew across the sound hole, causing it to make a low-pitched whistle. I got light headed trying to replicate the sound, which made him laugh.
He spent the next half hour showing me tricks, like spinning the uke in the air and catching it, making clock sounds, and playing behind our heads. Then he started to play. He moved chord positions up and down the fingerboard at lightning speed. He never slowed down or explained.
He just played until I could see what he was thinking.
We had a great time together. This was the first of several visits I paid to his humble apartment before his death in 1994. Those were lessons I’ll never forget.
Enjoy this Academy Award-nominated documentary short, The Wizard of Strings:
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