STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE WINTER 2016 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Just how good do you have to be to earn the name “Wizard of the Strings?” Well, in the case of ace performer, recording artist, author, teacher, and film, radio and TV star Roy Smeck, he earned that moniker by achieving unparalleled virtuosity on no fewer than six instruments: guitar, tenor banjo, octachorda (an obscure 8-string guitar), lap-steel guitar, mandolin, and ukulele—the instrument for which he became best known. Lacking vocal talent, Smeck dazzled audiences with playing chops that were nothing short of spellbinding. Not only could he pluck or strum with blinding speed, he’d swing and twirl his uke, play it upside down or like a violin, strum it with his leg, blow tones across the sound hole, and more.
A respected vaudeville performer who shared the stage with the likes of Al Jolson and George Jessel, Smeck’s career skyrocketed in 1926 with his amazing ukulele performance in His Pastimes, a short film that accompanied Don Juan, Warner Bros.’ first feature-length picture with prerecorded sound effects and music (though not dialogue). Released nearly a year before Al Jolson’s landmark “talkie” The Jazz Singer, Warner’s movie employed their novel Vitaphone process, which used a projector/sound machine to synchronize the moving film image with audio from a 16-inch-diameter 33-1/3 rpm record.
Smeck’s growing celebrity yielded unexpected dividends. After a performance in Chicago, he was approached by Jay Krause, president of the Harmony Company—at the time, the largest manufacturer of string instruments in America. Krause asked Smeck to endorse a new line of instruments, based on the success of his Vitaphone films and recordings. Smeck agreed, but when Warners refused to let them use the Vitaphone name, Harmony came up with a clever workaround. The new instruments were called the Vita-guitar, Vita-tenor guitar, Vita-mandolin, and the instrument that introduced the series, the Vita-Uke.
First sold in June 1927, the Roy Smeck Vita-Uke had an unusual lute-like shape that was sized somewhere between a soprano and a concert ukulele. Selling initially for around $12 (about $165 in 2016 dollars), the Vita-Uke’s sides and back were crafted from gorgeous flame-figured Cuban mahogany, with a top made of close-grained spruce, all finished in hand-rubbed lacquer. Its oddest feature was twin soundholes that Harmony described as being “cut in the shape of seals, which we have found aid materially in producing the [uke’s] unusual volume and quality of tone.” Despite Harmony’s claims that Smeck had designed the Vita instruments himself, Smeck later said he didn’t: “They would show me the models that they wanted to use my name on, and I would show them the kind of [playing] action that I liked.”
To promote sales of his new Vita-Uke, Smeck embarked on a national tour in the summer and fall of 1927. Appearing in towns and cities across the Midwest and South, he performed in theaters, as well as informally at local music stores. One newspaper said of him, “He can make the ukulele sound like a whole band.” To boost sales, Harmony arranged public ukulele contests, which were held when Smeck appeared. By the end of the tour, sales of Vita-Ukes had increased dramatically and Smeck was the highest paid instrumentalist in vaudeville.
By the time production of Vita-series instruments ceased sometime in the mid-to-late 1930s, Harmony had sold tens of thousands of Roy Smeck Vita-Ukes, far outselling their Vita-guitars and -mandolins. Harmony Vita-Ukes are still highly prized today for their good sound and cool looks. In recent years, quite a number of instruments inspired by the Vita-Uke have appeared, including the Frisco Uke, Kepasa KeVita, Clearwater Vita, and Ohana VK-70 (spruce and mahogany) and VK-70R (spruce and rosewood).