Eddie Peabody is probably the most well known of the 1930s banjo players - he is regarded as the best Plectrum banjoist in history. Edwin Ellsworth "Eddie" Peabody’s first instrument was a mandolin belonging to his father who at one time owned a music store. Peabody frequently joked, "... my mother used to give me my father’s mandolin to keep me quiet."He was five at the time. Four years later he took up the violin and gave his first public performance at age nine. His interest in stringed instruments continued through grammar school and high school, as he taught himself by picking an instrument up and figuring out the fingering and the chords.
At 14 he left public school in Lynn, Massachusetts and "fibbed" about his age to enlist in the Navy in WWI. He was soon a popular entertainer of his fellow submariners who called him "Happiness Boy" for his performances with mandolin, guitar, violin and banjo. When he left the Navy in 1921 at Long Beach, California, he was a first class quartermaster and ready to start in show business.
While he was best known as a plectrum banjoist, Peabody’s first theater act was doing tricks on the violin and other stringed instruments. However, it was his banjo playing that stopped the show. He got on the Pantages theatre circuit with the Earl Fuller Band and eventually ended up in Cleveland, Ohio around 1923. There he appeared with the Austin Wylie dance band and the Phil Spitalny orchestra. His frequent solos on steel guitar, violin and banjo, and his appearances on radio station WJAM operated by Willard Storage Batteries resulted in his unique style of playing the plectrum banjo.
In the mid-1920s Peabody moved to New York where he recorded and organized his own band. When the American Record Corporation signed him to a long term contract, a flood of recordings on a many labels (Regal, Banner, Oriole, Domino, Cameo, etc.) followed. The development of his famous personal style of playing is apparent from the velocity recordings through the improved technology of orthophonic recordings.
He made some of the first talking picture shorts in 1926 with the invention of Vitaphone for Warner Brothers. At about the same time he also had a part in developing the Vegavox banjo for the Vega Co. in Boston. It was an association that lasted for the rest of his career.
In 1928 he opened a long engagement at the Paramount Theatre in New York City. He was a popular entertainer from his personal appearances, phonograph records, broadcasts from Radio City and the Vitaphone film shorts. He was also a frequent guest on the Rudy Vallee-Fleischan Hour radio show where he appeared with such greats as George Gershwin.
In 1934 Peabody secured his first major part in a feature film when he teamed with Lee Tracey in "The Lemon Drop Kid". The two did a double banjo act with each fingering the other’s banjo, which had been a feature on the Rudy Vallee show. He also spent extensive time abroad touring Great Britain, Ireland, France and Germany. Back in the States he had a weekly spot on the "National Barn Dance" from Chicago.
When WWII broke out, Peabody returned to active service with the Navy. He was musical director at the Great Lakes Naval Centre near Chicago and toured the Pacific to entertain the troops. He retired from the Naval Reserve in 1964 as a full captain. Peabody returned to the entertainment circuits after the war playing the best hotel, theatre and club dates, doing network television and recording for Dot records. At an age when he could have retired, he toured major cities of the country with "America Sings" in 1969.
In 1970 he was touring the country with a show that was a combination of reminiscences of his show business years, many of the plectrum banjo solos he made famous and his arrangements of current hits of the day. While performing on his beloved instrument in Covington, Kentucky on November 6, 1970, he had a stroke and died the next day. His influence as a performer, teacher and exponent of the banjo cannot be underestimated, nor can his standard before the public. "In half a century of show business," he’d say, "I’ve never done a show you couldn’t bring a child to."
Perry Bechtel was another well known banjoist. With his talent and technical skill, he was known as “The Man with 10,000 Fingers.” He had an uncanny musical sense and a fantastically nimble set of fingers that enabled him to make the banjo sound like a full orchestra. Born in Pennsylvania, Perry Bechtel was attracted to the banjo as a boy by the recordings of Fred van Eps. But it was while serving in the U.S. Navy in 1920 that he heard the recordings of banjoist Mike Pingatore of the Paul Whiteman Dance Orchestra and began to play mandolin and then tenor banjo. After his discharge in 1922, he learned to play plectrum banjo and began playing professionally. In 1924 he followed Eddie Peabody into the Phil Spitalny Band and the Victor Recording Orchestra. In 1928 he settled in Atlanta, Georgia, and began teaching guitar, mandolin and banjo. He also worked at radio station WGN, did musical arrangements, promotional programs for General Motors, recorded with his own band and played as many club dates as possible. Then as musical styles changed, he began playing guitar for most of his professional activities.
In 1958 RCA asked Bechtel to record a banjo album with Chet Atkins playing accompanying guitar. This album remains the standard by which all other banjo playing is judged in terms of chord melody, arpeggiandi, single string technique, knee mute effects, moving harmony and internal melody. The record-selling album ignited a renewed interest in banjo literature. He taught, attended banjo festivals and continued active performance until the end of his life. He was an overwhelming influence on banjo playing worldwide.
Born in 1896 in Piqua, Ohio, Harry Reser seemed destined to musically ‘come of age’ along with the banjo. As a youngster, it was discovered that Reser possessed perfect musical pitch. Realizing that he might be a prodigy, his parents began serious musical instruction on piano, violin and cello. Reser amazed everyone with the musicianship he demonstrated at concerts and recitals and began performing professionally (on piano) at the age of 16.
Working as a pianist as the 1920s approached, Harry Reser had the foresight to know that the banjo was the coming thing. The bright, snappy danceable rhythms associated with the jazz age of the ‘Roaring 20s’ was a natural match for the sparkling sound of the banjo, and Reser intended to take full advantage of the trend. He began his banjo experiences playing rhythm plectrum banjo in dance orchestras, first in Dayton, Ohio then Buffalo, New York. Finally, in late 1920 he moved to New York City.
Even though he had established himself as a fine plectrum banjoist, Reser saw that the brighter ‘snap’ of the tenor banjo seemed to be more popular with the general public and band leaders, so he became proficient on that instrument as well. As the tenor banjo tuning was very similar to the violin, Reser was able apply his violin technique to the instrument; astounding listeners with solo renditions of classical pieces he’d learned as a youngster. It must be noted that, up to that point in time, the tenor banjo had been thought of strictly as a rhythm instrument. With his radical approach, Harry Reser was a trend and standard setter for the tenor banjo as a solo instrument in the early 1920s.
By 1922, Harry Reser had begun writing and recording original tenor banjo solos that displayed his brilliant technique. His technically challenging compositions such as Lollipops and Crackerjax were considered the pinnacle of inventive tenor banjo solos. These tour-de-force pieces remain challenging to the banjo player of today - more than seventy years after they were written. In Autumn of 1923, after being featured in a highly successful, long-running show with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra at the London Hippodrome, Reser returned to the United States with his greatest commercial triumph yet ahead of him.
Later that year, the owners of the Clicquot Ginger Ale company were planning to sponsor a weekly NBC radio program. Their one request was that the music "mimic the effervescence of their product". Producers at NBC felt that a band of banjos might fulfill that request and contacted Harry Reser with the idea. Though very busy both writing and recording, Reser jumped at the chance to lead his own band, and the Clicquot Club ‘Eskimos’ took to the airwaves shortly thereafter. The program was a sensation, featuring popular music of the day played by an orchestra of banjo family instruments led by chief Eskimo, Harry Reser. The popularity of the program propelled the group and its leader into national prominence where they remained for nearly ten years.
Following the stock market crash of 1929 and into the Depression years that followed, the musical climate of America changed drastically. The public no longer wished to hear the happy carefree music of the past decade. With this trend, the banjo soon became passé, and Harry Reser was prepared to ‘go with the flow’. Through the 1930s and 40s, Reser bounced between Miami and New York where he performed in clubs (mostly on guitar) and led several dance and radio orchestras.
The mood of post WWII America was again one of lighthearted existence and the public was displaying a nostalgic longing for the happier music of days gone by. By the early 1950’s the banjo was once again popular and Reser simply switched from guitar to banjo and picked up where he’d left off twenty years before. The Clicquot Club Eskimos were back on the radio with a weekly program that featured a more modern sound, but still counted on Reser’s banjo and arrangements for its musical soul. Reser made several tours for the USO during the 50’s, entertaining service men in Alaska, Japan, France, Germany and Korea. He also recorded two solo LP albums, Vamp and Happy Days Are Here Again, to fill the demand for banjo music that the record buying public was displaying.
By the end of the decade, all of America’s entertainment eyes were switching from radio to the infant medium of television. Harry Reser, then in his 60s, took the change in stride and was soon appearing on Sammy Kaye’s weekly television program Music From Manhattan. Through the early 1960s, Reser performed in the pit orchestras of several Broadway shows including Kiss Me Kate, Carnival and Sophie. He also remained very active in New York’s recording studios as both back-up musician to other artists and making one final solo LP, Banjos Back to Back, in 1962.
With his daughters Betty and Geraldine married, Reser decided to take his wife of nearly fifty years, Grace, on a tour of the Orient in 1963. However, that trip was put on hold to allow Reser to accept a position in the orchestra for the new musical Fiddler On The Roof. Rehearsals began in 1964 and Reser was given the opportunity to play the guitar as well as the mandolin and lute. The show opened to rave reviews and all indications pointed to Fiddler On The Roof becoming a classic of American musical theater. Sadly, Reser’s part of its history would be cut short. On September 27, 1965, while preparing for a performance of Fiddler, Reser collapsed in the orchestra pit and died at the age of 69.
As an innovator, composer, bandleader and consummate journeyman musician, Harry Reser set a standard by which all aspiring banjo artists of the future would be judged. While none to this date have equaled the achievements of Reser, his influence and inspiration can be heard in virtually any banjo performance where excellence in musicianship is the desired result.
Another incredible performer, Elmer Snowden contributed greatly to jazz in its earlier days as both a player and a bandleader, and is responsible for launching the careers of many top musicians. However, Snowden himself has been largely overlooked in jazz history.
Elmer Snowden was one of the leading jazz banjoists of his day. "Harlem Banjo" featuring the Elmer Snowden Quartet on Riverside Records (RLP 9348, 1960) exemplifies his hot, swingy style. On this album Elmer played tenor banjo tuned a fifth lower, with a low G on his bottom string, like a mandolin. This might be due to the initial influence of a mandolin-playing friend, whose father got Elmer started on guitar at age 9.
Elmer Snowden remembered today mainly as the original leader of the Washingtonians, the group that Duke Ellington took over, and would eventually evolve into his famous orchestra. The Washingtonians thought that Snowden had cheated them out of some money and elected Duke as the new leader of the band.
Snowden was a renowned band leader. Count (then Bill) Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Bubber Miley, "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Frankie Newton, Benny Carter and Chick Webb are among the musicians who worked in Elmer's various bands. Snowden was very active in the 1920s as an agent and musician, and at one time had five bands playing under his name in New York. Unfortunately none of his bands were recorded. Elmer himself recorded extensively on almost every New York label from 1923 on. However, he hardly ever got name credit except for two sides with Bessie Smith in 1925, and six sides with the Sepia Serenaders in 1934, until his last recordings when Elmer was "rediscovered" late in his life. Strangely enough, in spite of having been a leading bandleader and player in his day, Elmer's 1960 recording of "Harlem Banjo" was his first appearance as a leader on a record date.
Though Elmer Snowden continued to be musically active throughout his life, after the mid 1930s he lived in relative obscurity in New York. He continued to play throughout the 1930s, '40s and '50s, but was far from the limelight. After a dispute with the musicans union in New York he moved to Philidelphia and taught music. In 1963 Snowden moved to California to teach at U.C. Berkeley, and played with Turk Murphy.
Also developing as an artist out of the American music scene of the 1920s, Roy Smeck was among the earliest professional banjo and fretted instrument performers to earn word-wide recognition. He appeared in vaudeville theaters all across this country, including top houses such as the Palace in New York, Radio City Music Hall, The Steel Pier in Atlantic City, and the London Palladium. Smeck didn’t sing, but rather entertained with novelty dances. He was an accomplished enough musician to play various instruments behind his back and on top of his head.
He was the first musical performer to appear in a Warner Brothers film short, “Pastimes,” with the new Vitaphone sound recording technology playing ukulele and harmonica, which made him an instant celebrity. In 1932 he appeared in the film “Club House Party” with period singing star Russ Columbo. In 1933 Paramount featured him in the first film incorporating multiple soundtracks. The screen was divided into four parts with Smeck playing steel guitar, tenor banjo, ukulele and six-string guitar simultaneously.
His growing reputation as a virtuoso on fretted instruments resulted in his being requested to perform for many famous people. In 1932 he was invited to play at the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then in 1939 his performance was requested at the Gala held in celebration of the Coronation of His Majesty George V of Great Britain.
He released over 500 recordings from 1921 onwards, appearing on Edison, Victor, Columbia, Decca, Crown, RCA and other labels. He wrote several instruction books in conjunction with the Mel Bay Publishing Company. After Vaudeville, he continued club dates, recordings, debuted on radio and later on television with Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen and Jack Paar. He also invented the Vita-Uke marketed by the Harmony Company and put his name to several other uke, guitar, Hawaiian guitar, steel guitar and banjo models made by Harmony.
A virtuoso on the banjo, guitar, ukulele and Hawaiian guitar, Roy Smeck was known as “The Wizard of the Strings.” His promotion of happy music was a foundation for popular music. He never fully retired from playing and was still teaching music when he died at the age of 94.