Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Roy Smeck started on the vaudeville circuit. His style was influenced by Eddie Lang, Ikey Robinson, banjoist Harry Reser, Johnny Marvin and steel guitarist Sol Hoopii. Smeck could not sing well, so he developed novelty dances and trick playing to supplement his act.
On 15 April 1923, Stringed Harmony, a short film starring Roy Smeck made in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process, premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York City.
On 6 August 1926, Warner Brothers released Don Juan starring John Barrymore, the first feature released in the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. On the program was a short film, His Pastimes, made in Vitaphone and starring Smeck, which made him an instant celebrity.
Roy Smeck appeared in the film Club House Party (1932) with singing star Russ Columbo. He also appeared with Columbo in That Goes Double (1933), which featured Smeck on a screen divided into four parts, simultaneously playing steel guitar, tenor banjo, ukulele, and six-string guitar.
Roy Smeck played at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential inaugural ball in 1933, George VI’s coronation review in 1937, and toured globally. He appeared on television on variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and Jack Paar.
Roy Smeck designed and endorsed the Vita-Uke and other stringed instruments marketed by the Harmony Company of Chicago. He made over 500 recordings for various companies, including Edison Records, Victor Talking Machine Company, Columbia Records, Decca Records, Crown Records, RCA Records and others. He also wrote instruction/method books and arrangements for the instruments he played.
A documentary by Alan Edelstein and Peter Friedman about Roy Smeck and his career, The Wizard of the Strings (1985), was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary, and won an award at the Student Academy Awards.
Roy Smeck died in New York City at age 94. He was posthumously inducted into the National Four-string Banjo Hall of Fame in 2001. Smeck’s work is also featured in the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum.
His 1928 recording of Sam Moore’s Laughing Rag, played on the octachorda, an 8-string lap steel guitar, is considered a classic of slide guitar.