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Author Topic:   Roy Smeck
Rick Dempster

From: Brunswick East, Victoria, Australia

posted 10 June 2003 12:25 AM     profile   send email     edit
Dear Forumites,
I have been following your discussions since Lucky Oceans put me on to the site early in 2002. I have found a lot of very useful information here, and it seems the musical taste is generally ‘right up my alley’ – but that rather comes with the territory, I think. Anyway, this is my first posting.
The mention of Roy Smeck in the discussion on ‘S.G.Rag’ caused me to recall meeting the man at his home in N.Y. around Christmas 1980.
In Australia, the older steelers (meaning Hawaiian player) regarded Smeck with great distaste. Everything he did, in their book, degraded their instrument to the level of a cheap novelty; an area about which they tended to be (understandably) very sensitive.
Perhaps my generation (I am 50) didn’t carry the same kind of aesthetic baggage however. While my heart has always been with good Hawaiian, western swing, country, blues etc., I have always appreciated Smeck for what he was; a Vaudevillian and a very fine musician.
About the time of my one and only visit to the U.S., I had been working on a couple of Smeck’s arrangements which I was attempting to copy by ear from the Yazoo release of his 20s-30s recordings. The one that particularly caught my attention (as far as the steel was concerned) was ‘Limehouse Blues’ His rendition of that great old tune seemed to my ears at the time (haven’t listened to it for a good number of years) - while still ‘tricky’ in the vaudevillian sense- to verge on the 'Django-esque'.
While in N.Y., I mentioned Smeck to the late (Yazoo record’s founder) Nick Perls, who suggested I might call him if I liked.
So I phoned Roy, and the first thing he said was ‘What records of mine have you listened to?’ I said that ‘Limehouse Blues’ (recorded on acoustic steel) was my favourite, and he said ‘That was the best thing I ever recorded. Come right over.’
Whether or not he was just saying that to put me at my ease, I think, at least steel-wise, it was probably true. Taste has a lot to do with judgments like these.
Anyway, I had what amounted to a lesson with Roy, who was very kind, showing me his wonderful collection of instruments, and explaining many of his ‘special effects’ (all done with the hands, mark you)
The tuning he used was what is sometimes known as Kealoha’s A7th,
a standard ‘A’ high bass with the exception of the sixth string, which is replaced by a third, and tuned to a ‘G’, one step below the ‘A’ third string.
Roy used a broken slant to lower the sixth string one fret, thus giving a sixth voicing which he used in the many various ways most of us know of, plus, I am sure, knowing Roy Smeck, many other ways as well.
Roy was also a fine guitarist, uke and banjo player.
Anyone who hasn’t heard him should give him a listen. I particularly recommend the pre-electric stuff; but again, that’s a matter of taste.

Rick Dempster

Erv Niehaus

From: Litchfield, MN, USA

posted 10 June 2003 07:07 AM     profile   send email     edit
Very interesting post. I learned on the "Hawaiian" guitar and have some old sheet music with Roy Smeck on the cover.
George Keoki Lake

From: Edmonton, AB., Canada

posted 10 June 2003 08:27 AM     profile     edit
How fortunate you were to have met Roy Smeck. Yes, there were many who found his music distasteful, however I was inclined to listen to what he had to "say" musically, and found his music to be fascinating at the very least. He had a style of his own which no one has ever come close to copying and probably never will. I particularly enjoyed the recordings in which he utilized the clarinet and steel...nice combination.
Roy was "Roy" ... he never copied anyone and he did it "his way". I would have loved to have seen him in performance on any instrument, but particularly the steel guitar. I'll bet he put on quite a show.
Ian McLatchie

From: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

posted 10 June 2003 02:36 PM     profile   send email     edit
Hi, Rick, and welcome to the Forum. You've made an auspicious debut - that's a great story. "Limehouse Blues" is my favorite Smeck side, too, along with "Bugle Call Rag." There was a 78 of those two songs sold on eBay a few weeks ago, for far more money than I normally spend on a piece of shellac, but I was seriously tempted to grab it, just to have those two great performances in their original form. I do have quite a few other Smeck records, nothing comparable to those two, but all enjoyable. He was a brilliant technician on the steel, and at his best, one of the most original players of all time. Not to mention his ability on guitar, or banjo, or ukelele or . . .
Jody Carver

From: The Knight Of Fender Tweed. Dodger Blue Forever

posted 10 June 2003 06:10 PM     profile     edit
Ouch,I may be sorry for this,but I'm always in hot water over my looooooonnng posts,so
I will try to shorten this up by telling of my experience's with Roy Smeck.

My dad was a "vaudevillian" he raised myself
and my mom and sister with his show biz livelihood. Sure he struggled through those lean years of the late 1920's and throughout
the 1930's as well.

We had little to eat,but my dad was a trooper
and it was show business or bust. Many times
it was the latter. But we survived.
I was only a little boy when my mom took me to the Palace on Broadway to see my dad's vaudeville act. My dad was NOT a musician per say,but he was something more than that.
He was a Showman.

Vaudeville back then was the only enjoyment people had,there were no TV's there was movies and Vaudeville.

Life was simple back then,Brooklyn had the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers often time referred to as "Dem Bums" but that was a compassionate
expression among those who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Then there was the New York Yankee's who appealed to the upper crust of New York,Dem Bums had no place in the hearts of those rich
politicians and bankers etc.

I chose to be one of "Dem Bums" and have been
a Dodger fan all of my life.

Again,,,life was simple then,but people were
kind and the world was not as it is today.
California was a million miles from New York back then. I was probably about 7 years old when I went to the Palace to see my dad and his group of people who looked the part of a
rural type family,,a skinny gal who played accordian and had two cymbals strapped to her legs and a short little character that played great fiddle,and then there was Elmer
who was a carbon copy of Mortimer Snerd,but
he was the real deal,he acted like Mortimer Snerd and was a double for Mortimer Snerd.

The show consisted of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, A dance team of a fellow and a good looking gal,but many times the guy
looked better than the gal

Then came the acrobats,jugglers with the tight leotards and the excitement as they threw themselves through the air as the audience looked on as though it were the end of the world,,many were scared as they watched these acrobats walking the tight rope.

Then came a man whom I remember as though it were yesterday,,now keep in mind I was 6 years old at the time. I sat as he played his
banjo ringing out The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise,,then came the mandolin which was like nothing I have ever heard..again I was 6 years old. Then came a guitar that he
played on his lap,I looked on in amazement as he played almost every string instrument there was,. He billed himself as "The Wizard
Of The Strings".

The audience sat mystified as this man played
his lap style guitar to the tune of Bye Bye
Blues and Tiger Rag at break neck speed.

After the show which this man was won over by those who heard him, I was able to get backstage to meet him..I was bashful and scared,but he took his hand in mine and squeezed it and said,,young man, you have a wonderful dad and dont you forget that.

Sure I was proud, but too young to realize how much that would someday mean to me.

Years and Years later as I was in my teens,I was taking steel guitar lessons from a polynesian fellow uptown manhattan,his name was George Menen,a fine Hawiian style player
who taught me the basics.

I wanted to explore more than George Menen was able to offer me so far as playing I looked for someone else to help me acheive the goal I was after.

I heard that Roy Smeck who was living downtown was teaching steel as well as banjo
and ukelele,so I asked my dad if he would call Mr.Smeck and ask If I could take lessons from him.

My dad called Roy and Roy agreed to work with me on the steel.

When he played for me in his small apartment on the East side of New York City, I sat and listened as though it were back when I was 6 years old.his vibrato was very WIDE,his phrasing was very different,,what made him different was that he was ROY SMECK and he was proud of his achievments and he told me stories of his past and even made me a sandwich, I had a great time being with him.

He was to many a great player and to others
different,but the two things he was, was a wonderful human being and a great showman who knew how to capture an audience. And that he did many times over and over.

I can honestly say his use of the left hand was not what I wanted to sound like, but to be as kind an sincere as he was what is what
I wished I could be.

I took about 5 lessons from him and he said Jody,you dont need me,your dad can use you in his group. He didnt charge me a penny ever

So when I read what I read here,I wanted to tell you all of my knowing Roy Smeck as I did
and for that time of my life which was filled
with my love for the Brooklyn Dodgers and steel guitar, Roy Smeck helped make my life richer by knowing him as I did.

God Rest His Soul and in my eyes regardless
he will always reign as "The Wizard Of The Strings" I owe him this for what he did for me.

Thanks for listening..Im not as old as many of you think and maybe younger than you can imagine

Roy was the Wizard of being a down to earth good man and when he passed I was at the service's and I could hear that wide vibrato and see his big smile and I was only 6 years old again that day he passed.

Thanks for this opportunity. I know Roy would appreciate what I said about him..I owed him this.

There is a tape called "Old Vaudeville" and to my suprise I saw that tape on PBS a few years back and there before my very eyes was
my dad and his group,and following my dad was
Roy Smeck. That was on December 1 of 2000 and
December 1 0f 1986 was the day my dad passed

I hope they are together again, my dad thought he was the WIZARD OF THE STRINGS and for that innocent time of our lives he was just that and more to me.

Thanks again

Jody. Edited to add,,I am writing a book and most times I post a Copyright to my postings.
But this was my pleasure to share this with all of you so a Copyright is not in order here,this is a personal thing I am proud of.
And I hope this brought a smile to your face.

I was 6 years old one time,

[This message was edited by Jody Carver on 10 June 2003 at 06:18 PM.]

Mike Neer

From: NJ

posted 10 June 2003 06:56 PM     profile   send email     edit
Great stories, gentlemen! It makes me wish I was born in a different time. I don't listen to much of anything besides the old-time music, from Dick McIntire to Paul Whiteman to George Van Eps to The Boswell Sisters, etc., and I sometimes feel that some of that pure beauty and innocence and kinship has taken a long sabbatical.

PS--Jody, when you're ready to have someone proof your manuscript you know who to call.

Earnest Bovine

From: Los Angeles CA USA

posted 10 June 2003 07:13 PM     profile   send email     edit
Roy Smeck "Limehouse Blues" is not available on WinMX.
George Keoki Lake

From: Edmonton, AB., Canada

posted 10 June 2003 09:24 PM     profile     edit
What a great story Jody! Man, how I envy you for having known Roy Smeck so closely. Yes, times have certainly changed....I wish I could say for the better, perhaps so. I was fortunate to have gotten in on the tail end of vaudeville in this city at an olde theatre called the Empire. People lined up for 3 blocks every Sunday evening to get in for 50 cents to see the many acts. I was probably terrible in those days, but I had a 'hawaiian' (small 'h') group with a guy who crooned like Bing Crosby. Gads, we must have sounded awful. But the memory is still there. Each of us received $1.00 for being in the show! Wow!!!!
Cartwright Thompson

From: Portland, Maine, USA

posted 11 June 2003 02:56 AM     profile   send email     edit
You guys, or anyone interested in Roy and his music, NEED to see the video "Smeck Shorts". It is an amazing collestion of short films of Roy performing on steel, ukulele, banjo and guitar.
Go here:
The documentary is great too, but Smeck Shorts is a masterpiece.
There is some cool stuff here too:
Roy was the greatest ukulele player that ever lived.
Bob Stone

From: Gainesville, FL, USA

posted 11 June 2003 11:58 AM     profile   send email     edit
Thanks for the great story Jody. That's priceless!

And I second Cartwright's recommendation of "Smeck Shorts." Well worth owning.

Rick Dempster

From: Brunswick East, Victoria, Australia

posted 12 June 2003 05:58 PM     profile   send email     edit
Thanks to all for the replies and additions to this post. I wrote it to see what other players thought of Roy. I am glad to see that his eccentric style was/is appreciated.
In addition to the 'Shorts' video, I remember a short film was made in the early or mid 'eighties featuring Roy, which also had some of the old 'soundies' inserted as well. It's a very good documentary, and won an award at the time. I don't recall what the title was, but I think it may have been 'Roy Smeck, Wizard of the Strings' or something like that.
Regards to all,
Rick Dempster
Jody Carver

From: The Knight Of Fender Tweed. Dodger Blue Forever

posted 13 June 2003 09:08 AM     profile     edit
Roy Smeck in todays world of Steel Players
would fall short so far as technique & sound
and the dynamic sound of todays technology and most of all the talent that is what today
is all about.

But he had something that was far more important back when seeing was beleiving.

He had what is called "Stage Presence" his music was secondary to his expertise as a unique player. The audience saw how much he enjoyed doing what he did,and that was playing his steel guitar and
banjo and mandolin. And that is what made him what he was. He enjoyed what he did and
the audience in turn saw that and enjoyed everything he did.

How many players today have Stage Presence?
Are those who are more concerened about which knee lever to activate or which pedal to press ever going to stop hearing that question,,Hey do you ever smile when you play?.

Roy Smeck made it back when people couldnt care less about what tuning he was using or what kind of guitar he played.

He played for people who enjoyed him for what
he was. He played for the public, and NOT other steel players,I think seeing a Steel Player doing a major show would be a treat,but that is not likely with the exception of Buddy Emmons and or Joe Wright who do it all.

How many steel players do you see these days
on a National TV show doing a solo spot?

Leno? Letterman? Do you get the point? Those of you who can look and hear what Roy did back then and wonder "how did he make it as he did?

Stage Presence and Showmanship and just enough talent to satisfy an audience.

If? Would Have? Could Have? Should Have? If
I were a bit younger I would promote Buddy E. and Joe Wright to those who are in the dark producing those Late Night Shows,maybe thats why they call them Late Night,people are half asleep.Emmons and Wright would knock em out.

They both have what it takes to put the steel guitar front and center, and I have have the right guy to do it.

All times are Pacific (US)

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