Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Roy Smeck was the first guitar god. But he preference among stringed instruments was lapsteel and the ukulele. Smeck made over 500 recordings, starting in 1921 for the Edison Company, and continuing on until his last album, for Kapp, in the mid-1960s. Much of his content online leans toward novelty recordings and videos. He did one entire tune just thwacking his index finger on a uke. But that was not how he earned the esteemed title "Radio's Wizard of the Strings."

As vaudeville began it's quick death Smeck moved over to radio. In 1935 he made a number of appearances on the NBC syndicated The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour. This was a popular variety program hosted by Rudy Vallée. In fact it was initially titled "The Rudy Vallée Show."

The program was willed into existence by NBC executive Bertha Brainard. She became head of programming at NBC in 1928 and pushed hard for Rudy. She felt that he would appeal to female listeners. ( In 1936, it became The Royal Gelatin Hour, until it's cancellation in 1939.) This was no small program. Smeck was performing alongside artists like Eddie Cantor, Milton Bearle, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Charlie McCarthey. In the 1930s Roy Smeck even had his own show, in New York albeit briefly. He began giving music lessons during his show on WOR-AM. He enjoyed teaching, among his more famous students was Gene Autry. He also performed on WEAF-AM, WABC-AM and others.

He appeared at USO shows beginning in World War II and continuing on thu the Korean war though his own popularity was on the wane by then. He survived the golden age of radio and even appeared on TV variety including Ed Sullivan's, Steve Allen's, and Jack Paar's. More here. He often worked with Hawaiian and haole musicians, including Harry Owens and Ray McKinney, and he recorded several albums in the late 1950s with the Hawaiian singer Alfred Apaka.He wrote 50 books of music instruction and many of these are still in print.
He died in 1994 at Roosevelt Hospital, he was 94 and still living in Manhattan. A 1982 documentary about his life, entitled "Wizard of the Strings," was nominated for an Academy Award. Obituary here. Today there is a quiet resurgence in the ukulele and a equal resurgence of interest in Roy Smeck.

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