The First Star Of Recorded Guitar - NICK LUCAS

By Jas Obrecht (Guitar Player Magazine December 1980)
   Nick Lucas leaned toward the giant recording horn at New York's Pathe Studios and carefully etched into wax two flatpicked novelty instrumentals - "Pickin' The Guitar" and "Teasin' The Frets." The year was 1922 and although he didn't know it at the time, these hot tunes were the first recorded American guitar solos. By the time the Roaring '20s ended, Nick had crooned to millions, performed encores for European royalty and seen his name attached to a guitar. He had also acted on Broadway stages and appeared in the movie The Gold Diggers Of 1929, singing "Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me." The Lucas version of this song has since sold over 5 million copies: combined with his other record sales, the total comes out to about 84 million discs. Perhaps more than anything else, though, the most amazing aspect of the Nick Lucas story is that he's still going strong today, a full 75 years after he took up his first instrument.
   Nick's family immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in the early1890s and a week after his August 22 1897 birth in Newark, New Jersey, he was christened Dominic Nicholas Anthony Lucanese. The Lucaneses coursed with musical talent and two of Nick's brothers - Lib, now 76 and Anthony, 66 - still play instruments. Nick started his musical education at a very young age, studying theory before he took up the mandolin at age seven.Beginning in 1915, he worked as a string instrumentalist for several East Coast lineups, for which he's now credited with having pioneered the use of the guitar as a rhythm instrument in early Jazz bands. After recording the historic Pathe sides, he moved with his young family to Chicago and turned a two-week engagement at the plush Edgewater Beach Hotel into a two-year gig. Though his forte in those days was instrumental work, he gradually became known for his sweet tenor voice as he crooned over WEBH radio to points all over the country. Those solo broadcasts led to a recording contract with Brunswick Records. Billed as "The Crooning Troubadour" and then "The Singing Troubadour," Nick cut 65 singles for the label.
   By the mid '20s Nick had become the first mass media star known for his prowess on guitar, and Gibson was quick to note his popularity. In 1924 company representatives offered to make him a guitar to specification, which resulted in the Nick Lucas model, the first known signature guitar. Despite such travails as finish cracks that occurred under bright movie lights 51 years ago, the original prototype has endured and is still an integral part of Nick's act.
   In 1926 Lucas appeared in the Broadway shows SWEETHEART TIME and  Zeigfield's SHOW GIRL, and then toured Europe, setting attendance records at the Cafe de Paris and London Palladium. His career spiraled upward when the following notice appeared in the New York Times on November 14, 1926: "Because the Prince of Wales has heard and likes his playing and singing, after the manner of the old Provincial Troubadors, Nick Lucas has suddenly become one of the most popular entertainers in London. After hearing Lucas' singing, which he accompanied on his guitar one night this week, the Prince invited him to sing at the ball in honor of the Queen of Spain. Accordingly, Nick is in great demand, not only in theatres and cabarets, but also at homes of the society hostesses."
   Upon his triumphant return to America, Lucas could seemingly do no wrong. He landed an 80-week stint on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, earning an unheard of $3,000 a week, and was called to endorse a series of guitar method books. By 1930 Nick Lucas flatpicks were being manufactured. During the '30s Nick starred in radio shows for CBS and NBC and made a few film shorts with his orchestra. In 1938 he began performing in nightclubs and over the next few decades headlined some of the nation's most prestigious venues, including a 100-week stay at Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre. He recorded albums for Decca and Capitol and when television grew popular he performed on the Lawrence Welk, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Art Linkletter and Ed Sullivan shows.
   Tiny Tim burst into the pop scene in the mid 60s, acknowledging Lucas as his idol and claiming he patterned his vocal styling after the early Brunswick 78s. When the ukulele-strumming falsetto singer married Miss Vicky a cople of years later on the Tonight Show (with his back to the largest audience in the program's history), Nick was there, singing "Tip Toe Through The Tulips" in the background.
   Lucas made vocal appearances in several films in the '70s, notably THE GREAT GATSBY, DAY OF THE LOCUST and HEARTS OF THE WEST. He was on prime-time national television again on the first day of the '80s, playing guitar and singing atop a float in the Tournament Of Roses Parade. His style has changed very little over the years; still basic appeal endures. In concert today Nick proves to be full of wit, grace and enthusiasm as he sings such old favorites as "My Best Girl," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes," "Side By Side," "Tip Toe Through The Tulips," "Looking AT The World Through Rose Colored Glasses" and "Painting The Clouds With Sunshine," while his 82-year-old fingrs move as nimbly as ever along the fretboard of a guitar that was literally made for him years ago. In the following narrative Nick looks back on his early years and how he helped make the guitar what it is today.

   FIRST OF ALL, before I started playing an instrument, my brother Frank, who was five or six years older than me, wanted me to study music without an instrument-solfeggio. I studied with a Siclian maestro who taught me the fundamentals of music-timing and things like that. After I studied that for about a year Frank put me on the mandolin because in those days it was the dominant instrument with Italians and the general public. It wasn't a commercial instrument; it was mostly for house entertainment. Frank was a very verstile, though musician who played accordion, and he wanted me to accompany him when he performed. We came from a very poor family and in those days money was scarce, although the living was very inexpensice, too, so there was no problem there since my father was working. My brother would take me along to perform in weddings, christenings, saloons and streetcars. I'd pass the hat around - anything to make a dollar so we could help the family along.
   Of course, this work I did with him gave me all the practice I needed, especially with getting the right-hand tremolo technique. I studied the mandolin under Frank's tuition, and he was very stern, and this helped me. He gave me all the musical education I ever needed. After that we parted because he went into vaudeville with an act called the Three Vagrants. After I graduated from high school I was on my own and got a job in Newark, New Jersey at a nightclub called Johnson's Cafe. This was in 1915. In the interim my brother had me learn guitar so it could be used as more of a background, since the mandolin was primarily a lead instrument. I had become as good on guitar as I was on mandolin. Believe it or not, though, when I stared at this club I was playing an instrument called the banjeaurine - an mandoling with a banjo head on it - because they wanted more volume than a guitar.
   So I played with this big orchestra - it consisted of three men [Laughs], piano, violin and banjeaurine. We played the revues - like they had a soprano singer, an comic, a line of girls and a male singer. The show lasted about two hours. Eventually they went haywire and put in a drummer. This was in Newark and of course Newark is a short jump from New York. Naturally I got all the work in town because there were only a few musicians available who could qualify to play for these nighclubs. You had to be a good faker and reak quick. They'd say - play it in C, or play it in D, put it up in F, and put it down a key. And if you couldn't do that, the music didn't mean a damn thing. When I went to the Musicians' Union I had to pass an examination so I could get my card. Of course, they don't do that today; you pay the initiation and you're in. I was at that club for two years, and this is where I got my experience. Towards the end there I started doubling on guitar for waltzes and things like that.
   Then I went to another nightclub in Newark called The Iroquois, going with a combo with which I had a great experience. I played with one of the best Jazz pianists of that era, Blanche Merrill, and Mose Mann, a violin player, and Joe Jigg, a drummer. Unbeknownst to me, this was giving me all the experience and qualifications for becoming a great Jazz musician. The salary that I got on that first job in Newark was $20 a week, and I thought that was good then. Newark was a wide-open town in those days; they had nighclubs all over and everything went-gambling, prostitution. So when I got the job at the Iroquois, they gave me $25.
   After that I formed a unit called the Kentucky Five, the original Kentucky Five. In those days they leaned on the South - the dixieland jazz bands were very famous. I got the group together and toured the Interstate circuit as a backup for the Zeigler Twins; they were a vaudeville act. I had violin, lead sax, alto sax, piano, drums and myself. That was in the year 1919 and 1920. I had gotten married in 1917 and my daughter was born in 1918, and naturally I couldn't stay on the road too long, so I got myself a job in New York with Sam Lanin, the bandleader.
   At that time Sam Lanin was the kingpin of New York, and he did most of the recording dates. I was working with him at the Roseland Ballroom. I got myself a tenor banjo and had the guitar alongside me at all times because when we played waltzes, it was very difficult to play the three-quarter beat on the banjo. The guitar came in handy; it blended better. We had two bands on the stand when we'd perform - one would stop and then immediately the other one would continue. Those were the days when it was five or ten cents a dance - way back. You'd buy tickets and pick up a dame there and dance with her, and that's how she survived. The other band was led by Mel Hallett, who was very popular up around the Boston area.
   I did all of Sam Lanin's recording dates. In fact, sometimes I did two a day. The sessions went from 9:00 in the morning until 1:00, and then from 2:00 to 5:00. I still did my job at night. I had a contract with Sam, getting $90 a week. All they paid us for the phonograph dates was $20 a session; that was the scale then. So I made $40 a day there, four or five days a week.. With my salary I was making between $200 and $300 a week; that was a lot of money.
   We always had trouble with the recording dates because in those days they had the old cylinder wax. They had a big box in the back where they'd keep all these waxes heated up. The wax was pretty thick. We only had one horn to catch all of the music into the cylinder to record; this was the days before microphones. We had the conventional combination, like three saxes, two trumpets, trombone, piano, rhythm banjo, and tuba - not bass. Guitar was unheard-of. The tuba player and myself had to sit way back in the studio because when you blow notes out of the tuba, it's too loud, the needle would jump off the cylinder and they'd have to start all over again - very sensitive. Same thing with the banjo - it was penetrating.
   So I thought up the idea one morning of bringing my guitar to the studio. Sam said, "What are you gonna do with that?" I said, "Well, Sam, I'm having so damn much touble with the banjo, let me try the guitar." He told me they wouldn't hear it from where I was and put me right under the horn. Visualize the great big horn and dog you see advertised by the Victor phonograph company; well, that's what we had. He put me under the horn and the instrument was there. The rhythm was more smooth, and we didn't have any trouble with the needle jumping out of the grooves. So he said, "Hey, Nick. that's alright! Keep it in." That was the beginning of me playing guitar on record dates. I would say that was around 1921. The next year I did "Pickin' The Guitar" and "Teasin' The Frets" for the Pathe phonograph company on 42nd Street. I composed those tunes, and all I had in the studio were the musical director and the technicians - nobody else. I used a guitar made by Galliano; it was a small company located on Mulberry Street in New York. Now I haven't done any research on it, but I think that those solos were the first ones recorded. I worked with Lanin for a while longer, and then I worked for Vincent Lopez at the Pekin Cafe on 45th Street. In those days Lopez was very hot in New York.
   When I left New York I went to join Ted Fio Rito, who was an old friend from Newark. He had a band in Chicago called the Oriole Terrace Orchestra. He was at the Edgewater Beach Hotel and offered me $150 a week. This was in 1923. So my wife, my daughter, and I got in the car and drove out there. Took us about four days to get there because they didn't have route numbers; it was town to town. You couldn't drive at night because you would get lost. At that time I still had my Galliano, and we were a big hit in Chicago. We were booked there for two weeks and stayed more than two years.
   That was where I got my big break on radio. In those days radio was one of the only media of entertainment. Between sets with the band I used to go into the WEBH studio adjacent to our bandstand and fill in some time with my guitar and sing - kind of croon. That's when I started to get mail from all over the country. Now this wasn't a network broadcast by any means; it was just that people had crystal sets and would get me all through the night. I started to become very, very popular. So the Gibson instrument company approached me and wanted me to use their guitar. This was in 1924. I said, "Gee, I've got a great instrument now. I'm very happy with it, and it sounds good. However, if you make me a guitar to my specifications, I'll be glad to make the change." I had no ties or contract with the Gallianos because I had bought my guitar for $35. So Gibson said, "We'll do anything that'd make you satisfied, and if you're not satisfied, fine." At that time the guitar was practically obsolete. It was going out and they had to do something.
   The distinction about my guitar was this: The neckboard was a little wider because they used to make them and still make them today - a little bit too narrow. You can't get a true tone out of some of your chords if the strings are so close together. I don't have an exceptionally big hand, but I wanted more room between the E and B strings especially, so when I played a G or C chord all the notes would come out distinct. I wouldn't get any interference from flesh on the fingers. I also said I wanted a little wider body than usual, and I wanted it black and unshiny so the spotlight wouldn't make it glare all around the people in the audience. so they came up with this NICK LUCAS MODEL, which was a beauty. I still have the original one, still pllay it. It's a gem. It's been fixed about 40 times. I wouldn't part with it.
   So while I was with the Oriole orchestra I was becoming very popular through the radio. I wasn't getting any money for it; it was all gratis. That was my first stepping stone to my success as a single performer. Then the Brunswick phonograph company, which was located in Chicago, heard me and signed me up to record. I made a record there called "My Best Girl" and "Dreamer Of Dreams." These were my first sides for them, all by myself singing into the old horn. It was a terrific seller, and then I left the band to go on my own in the latter part on 1924. The record was catching on all over, and they wanted me to make personal appearances all over the United States. My first big theater engagement was at the Chicago Theater. Then a friend of mine named Bert Wheeler heard me sing and told a New York agent to come out and catch my show. He did, and we didn't sign a contract. We just had a handshake and were together for about 15, 20 years. Then my next big break came when I played the Palace Theater in New York. That was the epitome of all; that was tops.
   After I was a big hit there I went to England. At the Cafe de Paris the Prince of Wales and Queen of Spain were in to see my show one night, and then they had me entertain them privately about two weeks later. That's when I got publicity all around the world, and from then on I couldn't do anything wrong. When I came back to America, naturally I had all the work I wanted and continued to play in vaudeville because that was the only thing around. Vaudeville was it. I did all the circuits, making $3,000 a  week that's like $30,000 today, maybe more. I was all by myself doing a single. My wife and family were sure happy. This all came unexpectedly, too, because in those days entertainers were few and far between; I could count them on one hand. They were very famous: There was Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson and Bing Crosby. See, I was in that era. I was before Bing Crosby, but I wasn't before Eddie Cantor. He was way before me. Al Jolson too - I was practically a schoolboy when they were around. My ambition was to be as good as them. But I never tried to copy anybody. I try to be myself. When I record I use my own ideas, and back then I felt that I was a little unique due to the fact that my voice and guitar blended as one. I used to play alot of solos, too, but in those days they mainly wanted to hear me sing.
   When I got to 1929 and played the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, I got my biggest break. It was with THE GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY. This was big time. I was on the same bill with Sophie Tucker and Jack Benny. That's pretty stiff competition, isn't it? But I was learning as I was going along, watching these performers. I was very ovservant. I learned how to get on and off the stage, and that wasn't easy. It took me 15 years to learn how to take a bow. Today they do it overnight. My big song in the show was "Tip Toe Through The Tulips."  In fact, only last April the Variety Arts Club in Hollywood gave me a big testimonial honoring 50 years of "Tip Toe Through The Tulips." I never dreamed that song would become synonymous with my name all these years, and still, no matter where I go, it's "Tip Toe Through The Tulips." I only hope to write another one like it! You see, when you're in show business, you never know about a song until you sing it to the public. Every songwriter thinks that every song he writes is great, but this isn't true until the public buys it; they are the ones who decide.
   I don't know whether this is wrong or right, but I think I helped alot of these contemporary guys way, way back. Gene Autry says that without Nick Lucas he wouldn't be playing the guitar. Barney Kessel said I influenced him; same with Merle Travis - he's a fine guy. And even Roy Clark said that he learned from me. Now I'm ignorant of all this until they tell me. I'm not saying it in the spirit of conceit, but I feel that a lot of these contemporary guitar players studied from my books. I had two of them on the market: they came out around '27. The first one was a beginner's text for ordinary musicians, and then I had a second one that was a little advanced. A lot of the knowledge back then was hearsay; guitar players didn't know from nothing. They picked up my books, and so the books became very popular.   
   In fact, when I went to Australia to play for six months, a whole group of natives were waiting for me. It took three weeks to get there by boat, and they knew me because they all had my books and guitar picks. They stopped my boat right outside the Fiji Islands, and I had to give them a concert - played every damn thing that I knew on the guitar! Well, today, as you know, every girl and boy wants to play the guitar. There's a big guitar school around the corner from where I live in Hollywood, and I see them everyday walking around the neighborhood with cases. So I think I started something. I don't commercialize on it; I don't go around telling people about it. But after I analyzed the whole damn thing I started to realize that now the guitar is getting more popular than ever. Somebody told me that there's about 30 million people playing guitar around the world - not professionally, but they all have guitars.
   Until 1965 I performed steadily. I worked at Harrah's Club in Lake Tahoe and Reno for eight years with my own group, but that was too tough on my throat. My voice today is better than ever. I don't socialize enough to get acquainted with these good musicians today who have made it big - which I am happy for because I had my turn. I had my success, and thank the good Lord that I'm in good health and can still sing and work. I play a lot of fair dates and choice casuals. I just recently played three days at the Shrine Show in Indianapolis, and they want me back because they enjoyed it. I'm happy that I'm able to still do it. I'm in good shape physically and can still play "Pickin' The Guitar" and "Teasin' The Frets" - that's not easy! It takes a lot of fingering. As long as my health keeps up I'm still going to keep doing it until I can't do it any longer. I have a couple of things cooking; I think I'm going to grab myself a couple of good country and western tunes and record them. I think I could handle it very nicely and get the right background. It would thrill me to know it could be done.
   People today mainly want to hear me sing. The guitar is part of my act, and nobody can play for me. I improvise, play little runs in between, do a little solo. Like I'll play "Baby Face" and play 16 bars on the guitar. I feel that my voice is me; my guitar comes second. But the guitar is the one that made me. Without the guitar I wouldn't be what I am today because the two, as I said before, are one. Nick Lucas without a guitar wouldn't be Nick Lucas.

You can also read the unedited version of this interview on Jas Obrecht's Music Bolg:

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