BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE FALL 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Roy Smeck probably could have played a barbed-wire fence. That’s how good he was. If it had strings—steel or gut—well, that was enough. Smeck was one of the 20th century’s first superstars. He began his career in the early 1920s on the U.S. vaudeville circuit. In a few years, Smeck went from making $20 a week working in a music store to making $1,250 a week touring. That’s nearly $20,000 a week in today’s currency.
In those days, Smeck was considered a “novelty act.” Because he didn’t sing, he had to develop gimmicks to wow audiences. His best trick was playing the “12th Street Rag” on harmonica and ukulele simultaneously. That bit caught the attention of the filmmaking Warner brothers. In 1926, they hired Smeck to perform on ukulele, harmonica, banjo, and lap steel guitar in a short film called His Pastimes. It was the first film with sound recordings made using the Vitaphone Sound-On-Disc system. The system synchronized a film projector with a record player. Although His Pastimes might be considered the first “talkie,” Smeck doesn’t say a word throughout the entire performance. But the film catapulted Smeck to fame.
Smeck’s long career encompassed every major emerging media of the 20th century. He went from stage to screen, radio, and television; he was everywhere. On the vaudeville circuit, he palled around with the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello. He played at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential inaugural ball in 1933 and King George VI’s coronation review in 1937. He made over 500 recordings and was the first to use split-screen editing and multiple soundtracks to create a one-man band, in the film That Goes Double. Roy Smeck was so good he gave lessons to the guy that gave lessons to everybody else—Mel Bay, the founder of one of the world’s largest publishers of music instruction books.
So, what happens when one of the best string players in the world has nowhere to play? When gone are the opulent theaters of the vaudeville circuit and the golden age of jazz? You teach others what you know. This is the story of how three young people developed a symbiotic relationship with “The Wizard of the Strings.”
Marcy Marxer grew up in Michigan and began learning to play the guitar at age five. She was first introduced to the ukulele when “somebody had been to Hawaii, and when they came back they were all relaxed and tan and showing off their little uke.” Enter divine providence or just dumb luck: “Not too long after that, on my way to school, I found a ukulele sticking out of a garbage can.” Although the ukulele she found was a beat-up wall-hanger, she nurtured the instrument into playing condition. That found ukulele led to a fascination with anything Hawaiian, which included records found at yard sales.
Since the age of eight, Joel Eckhaus has played stringed instruments. The guitar was the gateway instrument. In college, the eight-string resonance of the mandolin captured his attention. His interest in the ukulele came via the reissue of the recordings of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards in the mid-’70s. This led to the purchase of a ukulele and some instruction books. But hearing the recordings of Roy Smeck was the catalyst that would change dozens of his upcoming Saturdays.
Marxer first came across Roy Smeck on records found in yard sales. Her increasing fascination with his playing was fostered in a listening room at the iconic Elderly Instruments store in Lansing, Michigan, while she was still in high school. Fast forward a few years. Eckhaus and Marxer are playing folk music in different string bands in and around the northeast United States. Once again, cue divine providence. The two Smeck aficionados, who have never met, wind up in the same NYC music store on the same Saturday at precisely the same time.
Every Saturday morning for two years, Eckhaus rode the train into New York City to study the ukulele in the presence of the master—Roy Smeck. Joel’s destination that Saturday morning in September 1979 was 590 West End Avenue, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—the 7th floor apartment of The Wizard of the Strings.
According to Marxer, “I met Joel on a Saturday in Matt Umanov Guitars in Greenwich Village. He had a ukulele, and he was scribbling down things really fast on a piece of green paper. I had a uke with me, as I was playing it in a string band at the time. So, I asked him what he was doing.” Joel responded that he had just taken a lesson with Roy Smeck, and he was trying to remember what he had shown him. Marxer’s shocked reaction: “Roy Smeck is still around?”
Sometime after that coincidental meeting with Eckhaus, Marxer set out to find Roy Smeck on her own. Not having a way to contact Eckhaus, she traveled from her new home in Washington, D.C., to New York City with a bag of change and started calling every “R. Smeck” in the phone book from a pay phone. There were a lot of R. Smecks in the book, but Marcy did finally reach the apartment of the right Roy Smeck, and Mr. and Mrs. Smeck invited her over. “I was nervous about meeting my hero, so I took a roasted chicken,” she says. “I wanted to make a good impression.” Smeck did not charge her for that first lesson. “The secret to my success is poultry,” she adds.
Smeck taught ukulele the old-school way—by ear; no notation, no tab. Eckhaus says that in a typical lesson, “Names of chords were not mentioned very often. He would break the songs down into little phrases. He would play a phrase, and I’d play the phrase. After the first lesson, I walked a block from Roy’s apartment building to Riverside Park. I sat down on a bench and tried to recall what I had just seen. My mind was overloaded. But it helped me recall enough of ‘Five-Foot-Two’ that I could play it the next week.”
Marxer explains how this by-ear approach to learning Smeck’s style gave her a deeper understanding of music. “It made my brain stretch like crazy and think about music differently. I learned his stuff by rote. It filled out the fingerboard for me because I had to figure out on my own how things worked.”
To say that native New Yorker Vincent Cortese is an audiophile is akin to saying Albert Einstein knew a little about mathematics. The last quarter of the 20th century found Vincent scouring Big Apple record stores searching for rare and coveted LPs and 78s. While flipping through the stacks at the famous NYC record store Sam Goody’s looking for Django Reinhardt sides, Vincent came across a Yazoo Records disc entitled Roy Smeck Plays Hawaiian Guitar, Banjo, Ukulele, Guitar: 1926-1949. The picture on the cover intrigued him. After buying the record and listening to it, “I was shocked to hear what one human being could do!” By chance, through the grapevine of Cortese’s musician friends, he met one of Smeck’s students and got the teacher’s phone number. His lessons with Smeck started in May 1981.
Initially, Cortese took guitar and lap steel lessons with Smeck. “Then one day Roy is sitting two feet away from me, he picks up his uke and starts playing. I was like, ‘Can I learn that too, please?’ Smeck was reluctant to teach more than one instrument, but I was so passionate about the uke and practiced so hard he gave in. After that, lessons that were supposed to be an hour long turned into two-and-a-half hours. I was exhausted. He was in his 80s, I was 25 and thinking, ‘I can’t keep up with this guy!’”
Ukulele lessons with Smeck were basically show-and-tell, according to Cortese. “He treated the ukulele almost as a percussion instrument. When he taught the rolls and the strums, he was thinking of drum rhythms.”
“He treated the ukulele almost as a percussion instrument. When he taught the rolls and the strums, he was thinking of drum rhythms.”
Although a virtuosic performer, Smeck’s understanding of music theory didn’t begin in earnest until the 1950s. According to Cortese, “When vaudeville died, Roy went from playing the Palace and Radio City Music Hall to having to make a living teaching. And to teach, he realized he’d have to learn music theory and how to read music. So he taught himself.”
Cortese continues to promote the legacy of Roy Smeck and is helping teach a new generation of players: In 2019, he published a comprehensive 260-page book called Roy Smeck: The Wizard of the Strings. He also offers online lessons in the Smeck style. One student is Stefan Poessiger of Germany’s Bad Mouse Orchestra (featured in the Summer 2021 issue of Ukulele). Cortese gave Poessiger lessons for a couple of years and even provided the group with original Roy Smeck arrangements, which they now perform.
Marxer went on to become a Grammy Award-winning recording artist on guitar and ukulele. Over the years, she continued to practice techniques she learned during her time with Smeck. But it was a cancer diagnosis and the resulting side effects of treatment that led to a new approach to her Smeck lessons. “I could not use my hands or walk very well. I just thought a lot. I went over those lessons in my mind and thought about a method that would string those chord shapes and scales together up and down the neck,” she recalls. When her health returned, Marxer made two volumes of her own lessons on chord melody for uke for TrueFire, in part informed by her time with Smeck. “When these chord-melody shapes start to look familiar, you’re on the right track,” she says.
Eckhaus became a world-renowned luthier building ukuleles, mandolins, tenor guitars, and other instruments under the moniker Earnest Instruments. He continues to play and teach at many ukulele festivals and retreats. He says, “Most of my teaching has been all about Roy Smeck. During the time I studied with Roy, I never charted out his arrangements. I recorded the lessons and learned the tunes by aural and visual memory. I didn’t start writing down the arrangements until I started teaching Smeck style at the Augusta Heritage Workshops in 2000.”
An excellent documentary by Alan Edelstein and Peter Friedman entitled The Wizard of the Strings, shot in 1985, takes you inside Smeck’s apartment where Marxer, Eckhaus, and Cortese took their lessons. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and is available on YouTube.
Roy Smeck died in New York City in 1994 at age 94. The Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum posthumously inducted him in 1998. The National Four-string Banjo Hall of Fame inducted him in 2001. And with former students like the ones profiled here passing the musical torch, the legacy of Roy Smeck, his style, and his music will live forever.
From the Ukulele store: The Ukulele – A Visual History traces the ukes evolution with colorful whimsy. Meet some of the world’s greatest ukulele players through profiles, photos, and more, with color photos showing more than 100 exquisite and unique ukes, vintage catalog illustrations, and witty ads that capture the craze of the 1920s and ’30s.