Ken Lelen

Ken Lelen
Ken Lelen sings great American ragtime, jazz & swing, and plays vintage acoustic guitars.

Monday, July 27, 2015

2016  Concert  Schedule

Feb     2     Simpson Meadows, Downingtown PA         Sunny Side of Street
May   22     Chandler Center for the Arts                   When Love Was Nifty
                 2 pm, 71 Main St, Randolph VT 05060
                 802-728-9878  —  Chandler Center
Aug     7     Oak Crest, Parkville MD                              Radio Ramblers
Sep   13     Simpson Meadows, Downingtown PA         Big Band Idols

                                      ©  2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

                2015  Concert  Schedule
Feb   12       Pine Run Community, Doylestown PA                 —       Legendary Love Songs
Mar   19       Country House, Wilmington DE                          —       Juke Joint Jive
Mar   26       Burlington Public Library                                 —       Vintage Songs + Vintage Guitars
                   7 pm, 22 Sears St, Burlington MA 01803
                   781-270-1690  —
                   Sponsors: FOL, FCU and Herb Chambers
Apr   22       Retired Men's Club of Greendale                      —       Legendary Love Songs
                   9 am, 128 Providence St, Worcester MA
                   508-799-1232  —  Worcester Senior Ctr
Apr   23       Overlook Community, Charlton MA                    —       When Love Was Nifty
Apr   24       Whipple Senior Center                                      —       Big Band Idols
                   1 pm, 182 Green St, Weymouth MA 02191
                   781-682-614  —  Weymouth Elder Srvcs
May    5       Chelsea, West Milford NJ                                   —        Juke Joint Jive
May  18        Springmoor, Raleigh NC                                  —        Hollywood Song Souvenirs
May  19        Cypress, Raleigh NC                                        —        Broadway Song Mementos
May  20        Bermuda Village, Advance NC                         —       When Love Was Nifty
May  21        Oaks, Orangeburg SC                                      —        Hollywood Song Souvenirs
May  22        Carlyle Place, Macon GA                                 —        Broadway Song Mementos
June 19        Maplewood, West Yarmouth MA                       —        Sunny Side of the Street
June 21        Dad's Day - Fox Hill Vlg, Westwood MA           —        Big Band Idols
July  15        Homewood - Frederick MD                              —        Speak Easy Jazz
July  16        Shannondell - Ashcroft, Audubon PA                —        Radio Ramblers
Aug   21       Community Center - No Plainfield NJ               —        Big Band Idols
Sept   2        Heath Village, Hackettstown NJ                       —        When Love Was Nifty
Sept  18       Lake Prince Woods, Suffolk VA                       —        Folk Song Boomers
Sept  25       OceanView, Falmouth ME                                —        Folk Song Boomers
Sept  27       Maplewood, West Yarmouth MA                       —        In The Mood
Sept  28       Holden Senior Center                                    —        A Fine Romance
                   1 pm, 1130 Main St, Holden MA 01520 
                    508-210-5570  —  Holden Cncl on Aging
Oct     6        Wesley Enhanced Living, Doylestown PA       —         Big Band Idols
Oct   13        Village @ St Barnabas, Gibsonia PA                —        Big Band Idols
Oct   13        Springhill, Erie PA                                          —        Broadway Song Mementos
Oct   19        Pomperaug Woods, Southbury CT                  —        When Love Was Nifty
Oct   20        Arbors, Manchester CT                                    —        Hollywood Song Souvenirs
Oct   21        Overlook Community, Charlton MA                 —        One Who Got Away
Nov    1         Road Runners, South Plainfield NJ                 —         When Love Was Nifty
Nov    2        Shannondell, Bradford, Audubon PA                —        When Love Was Nifty
Nov    4        Meadowood, Lansdale PA                               —        When Love Was Nifty
Nov    9        Lakewood Manor, Richmond VA                      —        Big Band Idols
Nov  10        Cypress, Raleigh NC                                        —        Hollywood Song Souvenirs
Nov  11        Vet's Day - Bermuda Vlg, Advance NC            —        A Fine Romance
Nov  12        Oaks, Orangeburg SC                                       —       When Love Was Nifty 
Nov  16        Springmoor, Raleigh NC                                   —       Broadway Song Mementos
Dec  27        Applewood Estates, Freehold NJ                      —       When Love Was Nifty
                                      ©  2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 24, 2015

One fine guitar — the Roy Smeck Professional
         Unusual auditorium guitar with Aero bridge and Cuban mahogany body
                               Played by a Philadelphia man for 65 years
                               Recently restored for concert performance 
                                              © 2015 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

                                                                                                                                                                             PIX: KL
New York City luthier Tom Crandall with c. 1935 Roy Smeck Professional.

This Roy Smeck Professional, made by Harmony Co. of Chicago in the late 1930s, recently came into my life and hands. It is a rare model (H1251) that was owned and played for 65 years by one man — Gilbert A. Rand (1925 – 2005) of Philadelphia.
     The instrument was made with quality woods, including flamed Cuban mahogany on the back and sides, mahogany neck and tight-grained spruce top with 15-inch lower-bout width. It has a rosewood fingerboard with 14 frets to the body and 25-inch scale, maple bridge and firestripe pickguard that mimics a Gibson L-00 guard from the same era. The entire guitar glows with a red-brown sunburst finish across the top, sides and back.
     The guitar has its original bridge and plastic bridge pins, but its pot-metal tuners long ago disintegrated. They’ve been replaced with new units. Gilbert Rand apparently used a metal nut extension for Hawaiian-style play for quite some time. Still, today the neck’s 1-11/16-in. nut width and ever-so-slight V shape feel comfortable for standard play.

Aero bridge + Smeck peghead
Two prominent elements on this guitar are its Aero bridge and the endorser's headstock. Both features were installed by Sears Roebuck Co., Harmony’s owner, to attract customer interest and generate sales.
     Set atop some Harmony 6-string, tenor and uke models in the late 1920s and 1930s, the Aeros were fully functioning bridges meant to honor a man once called America’s greatest hero — aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh. Oddly, Aero bridges were replaced with straight bridges by about 1940.

     Likewise, emblazoned on the headstock is the guitar's model name: "Roy Smeck Professional." The letters are engraved and painted on a pearloid peghead overlay.
     This element verified in the public's mind that this guitar was designed by the famous instrument virtuoso. It also honored Roy Smeck — a living musical legend and Harmony endorser for 40 years — from 1927 to 1967. More about Roy Smeck later. 

One special instrument
All told, the large size, Cuban mahogany body, Aero bridge, endorser nameplate, handsome finish and other details mean this guitar was designed to be one special instrument — unlike most guitars Harmony built during the Depression.
     In the 1930s the majority of the firm's units were mass-produced, budget affairs. They were standard-sized guitars with ladder-braced tops and all-birch or birch-and-spruce bodies. They were sold by the thousands through Sears mail-order catalogs and by wholesale jobbers to music stores.
     To bolster its sales during the Depression years, Harmony also gussied up the design of their low-brow instruments. They added custom appliqués, decorative decals, cowboy themes, rustic, romantic and Hawaiian scenes, and painted marquetry. 
     Some of its most attractive sellers were starter kits for novice guitar players. These included a guitar and canvas case. Occasionally, a silk cord, extension nut, slide bar and picks were added as well. In 1937 Harmony flattop starters ranged from $6.45 to $10.75. Its archtop starters cost a little more: $8.75 to $28.65.
     Kay Music Co. of Chicago, Harmony's biggest competitor, offered similar starter kits through Montgomery Ward stores and its mail-order catalogs. Flattop kits started at $4.98 and topped out at $11.98 for a Del-Oro auditorium guitar — reduced from $17.50 in time for Christmas. Kay archtop kits ranged from $9.98 ("Regular $12.98 value! Suitable for Hawaiian or Spanish style playing!") to $19.95 for an Old Kraftsman archtop with "genuine curly maple."

Top with two X braces
Gilbert Rand's Roy Smeck Professional stands well above Harmony's decorative and starter models in several ways. Besides its Aero bridge and star-enhanced endorsement, it is graced with an unusual X-braced top and Cuban mahogany back and sides.
     The top, in fact, has two X braces. One is beneath the sound hole in the traditional location. A second X was placed near the tail block between the lower struts of the main X brace.

Here’s how the Roy Smeck Professional is described in a 1935 catalog from Metropolitan Music Co., a New York City jobber that shipped guitars for Sears: 

Roy Smeck (“Wizard of the Strings”) [Extra Auditorium] Professional Guitar, improved model with famous Aero bridge. Beautifully figured mahogany back and sides, dark shaded finish. Fine close grained shaded spruce top, inlaid and nicely toned to match. Heavy celluloid trimmed edge. Steel reinforced mahogany neck. White pearlette head piece is hand engraved. Long scale, ovalled rosewood fingerboard, celluloid bound with neat inlaid position dots. Hand rubbed polished finish. Carefully adjusted and regulated for ease of playing and full tone quality. Individual unit tuning keys. Each: $30.00. 

     The $30 price tag did not change during the five years the guitar was offered. However, the cost of furnishing a 15-inch, black hardshell case with plush interior to protect the guitar rose from $5.19 in 1937 to $7.35 by 1941.

"Beautifully figured mahogany"
Back in the day the figured mahogany on this guitar was called Cuban mahogany and may have come from Regal Musical Instrument Co. of Chicago, said one vintage guitar source. In the 1930s Regal operated a secondary enterprise importing and selling wood supplies to other instrument makers and furniture firms. So it’s not uncommon to see instruments from this era made by Harmony, Washburn and Regal with the same curly Cuban mahogany.

     Cuban mahogany has not been commercially available since the 1950s due to extensive logging. Produced prior to that era, guitars like this Roy Smeck Professional are rare and special because they may reveal a close, fine grain and exhibit a curl, quilt or wavy-grain figure. Said to be denser than Honduran mahogany, such Cuban mahogany offers rosewood-like tone qualities, with a well-developed midrange and bass.

Roy Smeck — the endorser 
Shown with electric lap steel guitar, musician Roy
Smeck endorsed for both Harmony and Gibson.
Roy Smeck (1900 – 1994) was a popular musician and virtuoso on Spanish and Hawaiian guitar, banjo and ukulele. From his days in vaudeville in the early 1920s until the mid-1960s, he made more than 500 recordings for Victor, Decca, Edison, Columbia, Crown, RCA and other labels. In the 1950s and 1960s he was a frequent guest on TV variety shows for Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen and Jack Paar.
     Today, the "Wizard of the Strings" is better known as the endorser of the Stage Deluxe (1934 – 1942) and Radio Grande (1934 – 1939), Hawaiian guitars with 2-inch-wide necks from Gibson of Kalamazoo, MI. Though many have had their necks thinned when converted to standard-style for modern players, they still have a higher collector value than their Harmony counterparts, according to Harmony expert François Demont and many vintage dealers. 

25¢ weekly installments
Born August 12, 1925, Gilbert Rand was a teenager when he bought his Roy Smeck Professional sometime before 1940. To get the guitar, he made weekly installments of 25¢ for nearly nine months and paid a total of $39.60 to Dortch Studios of Music and Arts on North Fifteenth Street in Philadelphia.
Gilbert Rand paid 25¢ a week for his guitar.

     Gilbert took music lessons at Dortch and played the guitar in slide and standard-style throughout his life, which ended October 30, 2005 at age 80. Housed in a period archtop case were Hawaiian music instruction pages, Dortch Instrument Club Member card, handwritten lessons, extension nut, thumb pick, one of the surviving pot-metal tuners, and a c. 1926 Five-Minute Guitar Course instruction booklet.
Gilbert Rand (2nd from left in Nov '78 Reading Eagle article) was
a member of the fraternal group Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
     Other than his 65-year stewardship of the Roy Smeck Professional, little is presently known about Gilbert Rand’s adult life or family. An article and photograph published the Reading Eagle in November, 1978 and an IRS Form 990 for nonprofit taxpayers, also from 1978, revealed he was a Grand Master in the Philadelphia chapter of Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization that raises funds and supports worthy causes. And other than residing at several Northeast Philadelphia homes during his life, little else is known about the man. Only time will tell if we can discover more about this special person and his fine guitar.

Playability is now superb 
Today, this acoustic guitar’s playability is superb. The vintage sound is appealing for its bass and mid-range warmth. It throbs smoothly when fingerpicked (crisp, round and soft, with quick-decay on the treble). And it thrums cleanly when strummed or flatpicked (crisp, vibrant and even, but not strident). [Yes, using words to describe sounds is vain.]
     In April, 2013 New York City luthier Tom Crandall restored the guitar with the following work:
     •  reset the neck
     •  replaced crumbled tuners with Grover Sta-Tites
     •  planed (12-inch radius) and refretted fingerboard
     •  installed Popsicle brace under tongue of fingerboard
     •  filled and recut the saddle slot, then intonated bone saddle
     •  installed maple pad on bridge plate for secure bridge pin contact.
     “These guitars don’t come up for sale often,” said Alex Whitman, Crandall’s business partner. “And they almost never get the repair work they deserve.” 



                                             © 2015 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved