Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nick Lucas: America's First Guitar Star Reminisces

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Nick Lucas, America’s first guitar star.

During the Roaring Twenties, Nick made stacks of 78s, including 1922’s “Pickin’ the Guitar” and “Teasin’ the Frets,” the first notable guitar solos on record. Framing his warm, pure tenor with agile guitar parts, he scored his first major hit with 1924’s “My Best Girl”/“Dreamer of Dreams.” Nick won rave reviews on Broadway, played for royalty in Europe, and co-starred in the 1929 Technicolor film Gold Diggers of Broadway. Then he had the biggest hit of his career, “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips With Me.” [To legally download this and dozens of other Nick Lucas tracks, visit]

By 1930, Nick Lucas was America’s most famous guitarist. His name appeared on instruction books, guitar picks, and an elegant Gibson guitar. As Nick’s popularity and influence were eclipsed by players such as Eddie Lang, Django Reinhardt, and Charlie Christian, he continued to make records and headline nightclubs. During World War II, he starred in several Soundies, the forerunners of the modern music video. The 1950s and ’60s found him gigging in casinos and appearing on TV variety shows. When pop sensation Tiny Tim married Miss Vicki on the Tonight Show – to an audience of 40 million – Nick was there, performing “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips” in the background.

As an editor for Guitar Player magazine, I made it my mission to interview all the guitar pioneers I could find. When I located Nick, he was living in semi-retirement at 1811 North Whitley in Hollywood. From his apartment, he could see students toting their guitar cases to nearby G.I.T., totally unaware that they were walking past the man who’d paved the way for everyone from Eddie Lang to Eddie Van Halen.

Nick enjoyed our interview and stayed in touch with me for the rest of his life. I loved getting his phone calls and letters. Always full of life and the perfect gentleman, this wonderful guy passed away on July 28, 1982. The interview that follows took place on September 3, 1980.


Are you up for doing an interview now?

Oh, sure. I'm ready to go. All you gotta do is ask questions. Everything you have in mind, why, I'll be glad to answer 'em. How far back do you want to go?

To about 1906, with your brother Frank.

[Laughs.] Yeah!

Learning mandolin?

Yeah. 1906 was just about the time. I was in grammar school; I was just about eight, nine years old. First of all, before I started with my brother Frank, he wanted me to study music without an instrument – solfeggio, which I studied from a Sicilian maestro, they called them in those days. That's all they did is teach music without an instrument. They taught the fundamentals of the music, of timing, and things like that. I studied that for about a year, and then he put me on the mandolin because in those days mandolin was the dominant instrument with the Italians and with the general public. Of course, it wasn't a commercial instrument; it was mostly for house entertainment – playing weddings and christenings and things like that. This was in Newark, New Jersey. That's where I was born.

Was your name originally Nick Lucas?

No, my original name was Dominic. My baptismal name was Dominic Nicholas Antonio Lucanese. That's an Italian name. Antonio was taken after some of my relatives; I guess they always like to include them. So actually I had four names. My first name was Dominic, I understand, due to the fact that I was born on a Sunday. "Domenica" means "Dominic" in Italian.

So after that, after I had a little knowledge of the fundamentals of music, he put me on the mandolin. My brother Frank was a very versatile musician. He was a thorough musician. He played the accordion, and in those days the accordion was it. It was a very, very popular instrument. And he wanted me to play the mandolin so that I could go with him on different occasions. I played weddings and christenings, because we did come from a very, very poor family. In those days, money was scarce and the wages were very poor. However, the living in those days was very, very inexpensive also, so there was no problem there. My father was working, of course. My brother would take me along with him, playing at weddings and christenings and saloons, passing the hat around, which I did. And we played in street cars and passed the hat around. We played on street corners – anything to make a dollar, so that we could help the family along.

So Frank was a couple of years older?

Yes. I might say Frank was about five or six years older. He was born in Italy. They migrated from Italy in the early '90s, because I was born in 1897. And he was the first. Then my sister, who passed away about a year ago – she was 85 – she was second, and then I was third. I was number three. There was another sister, and then there was three more brothers. Two of them are alive now. There's only three left in the family – my brother Lib and my brother Anthony, they're both alive. They're musically inclined, but not professionally.

So my brother took me around to play all these Italian weddings and christenings, and we got the big sum of a dollar an hour. All this work that I did for him gave me all the practice I needed, especially on the right hand, to get that tremolo and that technique. I had to study the mandolin under his tuition, and he was very stern. He really helped me. He gave me all the musical education that I ever needed. After that we parted, because he went into vaudeville with an act called The Three Vagrants. And then after I graduated school I was on my own, and I got a job in a nightclub in Newark, New Jersey, called The Johnson's Cafe. This was in 1915.

Were you playing guitar yet?

No. Believe it or not, I was playing . . . . They wanted more volume than a guitar, so I got myself a banjorine, which is a mandolin with a banjo head on it. And in order to get volume, I played the mandolin. That was my basic instrument. My brother, in the interim, he thought he wanted me to play a guitar, so there would be more volume as a background, because the mandolin is primarily a lead instrument. He also started me on the guitar, so I became as good on the guitar as I was on the mandolin. But when I first started, I played the mandolin in the night club and bought myself a banjorine. They were available in those days – anything that sounded like a banjo.

So I played with this big orchestra that consisted of three men [chuckles] – piano, violin, and the banjorine. And we played the revue. They had nightclub revues – like, they had a soprano singer, a comic, a line of girls, and a male singer. And that was the revue. The show lasted about two hours. And we played just with three pieces until eventually it went haywire – they 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 was only very few musicians available in Newark who qualified to play for these nightclubs. You had to be a good faker. You had to read quick, you know. And most of 'em was fakin'. They'd say, "Oh, play it in C or play it in D, put it up in F, 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 take a regular musical test, pass an examination, so I could get my union card. Of course, they don't do that today. They give you a card. Just pay your initiation fee, and you're in.

This is where I got all my experience. I was there two years, working with this outfit – the piano, violin, banjorine – and I doubled on the guitar when we had to waltzes and things like that. The guitar just came in handy. From there, I went on to another nightclub in Newark called The Iroquois with another combo. I had the great experience of playing with one of the greatest jazz pianists of that era, Blanche Merrill. She played that boogie-woogie piano. She used to live in New York too. We also had violin and drums. Oh, this was giving me all the experience and the qualifications of becoming a great jazz musician – unbeknownst to me.

Was the money good?

I'll tell you, the salary on the first job I got in Newark when I played in a nightclub was $20 a week. And I thought that was good then. I was in demand in Newark, and Newark was a wide-open town in those days. They had night clubs all over, and everything went – gambling, prostitution, everything was wide open. Then when I got another job at The Iroquois, they gave me $25. I bettered myself from $20 to $25.

And then we formed a unit called the Original Kentucky Five. In those days, they leaned on the South, like Dixieland jazz bands were very famous. So I got myself a group called the Kentucky Five, and I toured the Interstate circuit and the Keith circuit as a backup to the Ziegler Twins – they did a vaudeville act. I had a violin, and I had alto sax, piano, drums, and myself. I would say that was in the years of 1919 and 1920. I got married in 1917, then my daughter was born in 1918, so naturally I couldn't stay on the road too long. I only stayed on tour with this Kentucky Five, which I originated, for about a year because I had to come home. My wife had my only daughter, and I had to get myself a job around town. So I got myself a job in New York with Sam Lanin. And at that time Sam Lanin was the kingpin of New York. He did all the recording dates – well, I wouldn't say all, but most of it. I was working with him at the Roseland Ballroom. I played tenor banjo. I got myself a tenor banjo.

So the volume could cut through the orchestra.

Yeah. And I had the guitar alongside of it at all times for when we played waltzes. It was very difficult to play a three-quarter beat on the banjo, so the guitar came in handy. It blended better with waltzes. I had such great musicians as Jules Levy – that goes way back – on trumpet. We had two bands on the stand. One would stop, and then immediately the other would continue. Those were the days when it was 5 cents a dance, 10 cents. You remember that, way back? You buy tickets and pick up a dame there and dance with her, and that's how they survived. The other band was called Mel Hallett, who was very popular up around the Boston area. And there was a fellow playing piano there with Mal Hellett by the name of Frankie Carle. He became a great pianist.

How did you break into recording?

I did all of Sam Lanin's recording dates. In fact, sometimes I'd do two a day. The sessions were from 9:00 until 1:00, and then from 2:00 to 5:00, and then I still did my job at night. And I had a contract with Sam, getting $90 a week. And the phonograph dates, all they paid was $20 – that was the scale then. So I made $40 a day, and I practically worked there every day – four or five days a week – making those record dates. I was making a pretty good salary. $200 or $300 a week – that was a lot of money!

What was a recording session like in the early 1920s?

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, and they kept all these waxes in the box always heated up. And the wax was pretty thick. We only had one horn to catch all the music into the cylinder to record. We didn't have microphones – this was the days before microphones. And we had the conventional combination, like three saxes and two trumpets and a trombone, piano, tuba, and a rhythm banjo. Guitar was unheard of. And we – that means the tuba and myself – had to sit way back in the studio, because when you blow notes out of a tuba, if it's too loud, that needle would jump off the cylinder and they'd have to start all over again. Very sensitive. And the banjo was the same thing, because it was a penetrating instrument. So I thought up an idea one morning of bringing my guitar to the studio. And Sam says, "What you gonna do with that?" I said, "Well, Sam, I'm having so damn much trouble with the banjo, let me try the guitar." He said, "Well, Nick, they won't hear it." I said, "Well, put me closer to the horn." So he got me right under the horn.

Now, this is a great, big horn. Visualize a great big horn, like you see advertised by the Victor Phonograph Company, the great big one with the dog. Well, that's what we had. So he put me under the horn, and the instrument was there. The rhythm was smoother, and we didn't have any trouble with the needle jumping out of the grooves. So he said, "Gee, Nick, that's all right. Keep it in." So that was the beginning of me playing guitar on record dates. Now, I would say that was around 1921 or '22, something like that.
I still worked with Sam for a while, then I worked with Vincent Lopez at the Peking Cafe on 45th Street. That was a hot spot, and in those days, Vincent Lopez was very, very hot in New York. He couldn't do anything wrong.

Did you record "Teasin’ the Frets" around this time?

No. "Teasin’ the Frets" was done while I was working with Sam with a different group, with a fellow called Don Parker. And on "Teasin’ the Frets" and "Pickin’ the Guitar," I did that all by myself. That was on Pathe Records. The sessions were from about 10:00 until 1:00, and I was all by myself. All I had was the musical director and the technicians in the studio. Nobody else. They were recorded in New York at the Pathe Phonograph Company on 42nd Street.

Did you compose those tunes?

Yes. [Both of these rare original versions can be heard at]

I've heard that those are the first popular guitar solo recordins.

I seem to agree with you on that. Now, I haven't done any research work on it, but I think they were the first ones.

Do you remember what kind of guitar you used for them?

Oh, yes. The guitar I started on, which was called a Galliano, made in New York by the Galliano Company. It was a small company located on Mulberry Street. I wasn't associated with Gibson until later, when I left New York. I went to join Ted Fiorito, who was an old friend of mine from Newark, and he had a band in Chicago called the Oriole Terrace Orchestra. He was at the Edgewater Beach Hotel there, and he sent for me. He asked me if I would be interested in coming out there, and he offered me $150 a week. And so my wife and daughter and I got in the car and drove out there. This was in 1923. It took us about four days to get there, because in those days they didn't have the route numbers. It was town to town – next town, next town. Of course, that was only day driving – I never drove at night because you'd get lost. You wouldn't know where the hell to go.

At that time I still had my Galliano. And when I went to Chicago, naturally we were a big hit there at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. We were booked for two weeks, and we stayed there almost three years. That was where I got my big break on radio. In those days, radio was the only media of entertainment. WEBH, Chicago – that was the studio. In the interim between sets, I used to go into the studio, which was right adjacent to our bandstand, and fill in some time with my guitar and sing and kind of croon. And that's when I started to get mail from all over the country. This wasn't a network by any means; it was just that they all had these crystal sets and they would tune in and get me all through the night. I got loads of mail, and I started to become very, very popular.

How did Gibson’s Nick Lucas model come about?

The Gibson Instrument Company, which was located in Kalamazoo, approached me. This was in 1924. They wanted me to play their guitar, but I said, "Geez, I got a great instrument now. I'm very happy with it and it sounds good. However, if you can make me a guitar to my specification, I'll be glad to make the change." I had no ties or contract with Galliano by any means, because I bought it for $35. So Gibson said, "We'll do anything to make you satisfied." At that time, the guitar was practically obsolete – it was going out. They had to do something. But by the same token it was coming in, so they made a guitar for me called the Nick Lucas model.

What was distinctive about it?

Well, the distinction was this: The neck board was a little wider. They made the neck board in those days – and they still make 'em today – a little bit too narrow, because you can't get a true tone out of some of your chords because the strings are so close together. I don't have an exceptionally big hand, but I wanted more room between the E and the B string, especially, for when I played a G chord or a C chord. See, then all the notes would come out distinct. I wouldn't get any interference with my flesh on the fingers. So they made a little wider fingerboard.

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What happened to the original Nick Lucas guitar?

I still have it. I still play it! I still use it! It's a gem. It's been fixed about 40 times, but I still use it. I wouldn't part with it. And I also said that I want a little wider body than the usual, and I want it black, and I want it so it don't shine, because the spotlight would shine on a guitar and it would glare all around the people in the audience. So they came up with this Nick Lucas model, which was a beauty!

When did you make the transition from guitar star to singing star?

With the Oriole Orchestra I was becoming very popular through the radio. I wasn't getting any money for it – this was all gratis. So that was my first stepping-stone to becoming a success as a singer and a performer. And then Brunswick Phonograph Company, which was located in Chicago, heard me and they signed me up to record. And I made a record there called "My Best Girl" and "Dreamer of Dreams," which was my first vocal recording – all by myself, in the old horn, no microphones. I sang in the horn and I made this recording, and it was a terrific seller. And then I left the band to go on my own. At the time I was with Dan Russo and Ted Fiorito, and I left them in December 1924. In the interim, I made the record, and the record was catching on all over the country. I was in demand. They wanted me to make personal appearances all over the United States. My first big theater engagement was at the Chicago Theater in December 1924. This was as a solo act. A friend of mine, Bert Wheeler, heard me sing and told his New York agent about me. He said, "Come out and catch this guy – he's great. I know he's gonna become somebody." So he did. We didn't sign a contract, but we had a handshake, and we were together for about 15, 20 years. From then on I played vaudeville.

My next big break from there came when I played the Palace Theatre in New York. That was the epitome of all. That was tops! I went into the Palace of New York, and I was a big hit there. Now, England was big in those days. I played at the Cafe des Paris, and the Prince of Wales and the Queen of Spain were in to see my show one night. Then they had me entertain for 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 to, and I continued to play in vaudeville, because that was the only thing around. Vaudeville was it. I played the Orpheum, Keith – I played all the circuits. I was making $3,000 a week. That's like $30,000 today – maybe more! All by myself. All I was doin' was singin'!

Your family must have been happy.

They sure were! As I said, this all came unexpectedly, because in those days, entertainers were far and few between. I used to play a lot of solos, but in those days they wanted to hear me sing. And today they still want to hear me sing. My voice, thank goodness, is still in excellent condition. Because I quit in 1965. I was working steady. I worked for Harrah's Club in Reno and Tahoe for eight years, had my own group. But that was too tough on my throat, so I quit in 1965. My voice today is better than ever. But the people in those days, and even today, they want to hear me sing. The guitar is a part of my act. See, nobody can play for me. When I sing, then I play for myself. I improvise, I play runs in between, and I play a little solo. Like I'll play "Babyface," and maybe I'll play 16 bars on the guitar.

In those days, the entertainers that were successful and very famous, I could count them on one hand. There was Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Bing Crosby. And I was in that era. I was before Bing Crosby, but I wasn't before Eddie Cantor, though. He was way before me, as was Al Jolson, because I was practically a school boy when they were around. But my ambition was to be as good as them, but I never try to copy anybody. Never try to copy anybody. I try to be myself. When I record, I use my own ideas, and I felt I was little unique due to the fact that my guitar and my voice blended. It was one.

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. Lucas without a guitar wouldn't be Nick Lucas. I'm not saying this in the spirit of conceit, by any means, but I feel that most of these contemporary guitar players studied from my books. I had two books on the market. They came out around '26 or '27, right after I became popular on records. Then when I got to 1929 and played the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, that's when I got my biggest break, with The Gold Diggers of Broadway. I was working there at the Orpheum Theater, and this was big time. I was on the bill with Sophie Tucker and Jack Benny and myself. That's pretty stiff company, isn't it? But I was learning as I was going along, watching these performers. I was very observative, and I learned how to get on and off stage, and that wasn't easy. It took me 15 years to learn how to take a bow. Today they do it overnight. So that's where I got my biggest break, with "Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips" []. In fact, on April 15th of this year, the Variety Arts Club that I belong to gave me a big testimonial honoring 50 years of "Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips." I never dreamed that a song would become synonymous with my name all these years. And still, no matter where I go, it's "Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips."

And it's such an optimistic song.

Oh, yeah. I only hope to write another on like it. You see, you never know, when you're in show business, about a song until you sing it to the public. I might think it's great – every songwriter thinks every song he writes is great – but not until the public decides upon it, because they are the ones that buy it.

Many famous guitarists credit you with inspiring them to play.

I feel that I helped all these contemporary guys way, way back. Gene Autry said, "Without Nick Lucas, I wouldn't be playing the guitar."

Merle Travis also said he was influenced by you.

Merle Travis – he's a fine guy. I'll tell you another one – Barney Kessel. He's a great musician. And even Roy Clark said that he studied from my books. Now, I'm ignorant of that until they tell me. The first book was for beginners, and then I had a little advanced one. It was a beginning book for ordinary musicians, because contemporary guitar players in those days, they didn't know from nothing. They wanted to become guitar players, and they picked up my books. They happened to be very popular in those days. In fact, when I played Australia for six months in 1937, there was a group of natives waiting for me at the boat – this was right outside the Fiji Islands – because they all had my books and my guitar picks. I had to give them a concert and play every damn thing I knew on the guitar, because they all had guitars.

Now today, as you know, every girl and every boy wants to play the guitar. There's a big guitar school around the corner here in Hollywood, and I see 'em every day, walking around the neighborhood with guitars. 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 the guitar is getting more popular now then ever. Somebody told me there's about 30 million people playing the guitar – not professionally, but they all have a guitar, like having a piano in their home.

This has been a great interview, Nick.

I'm telling you the truth, the whole resume of my life from the beginning. When I played the guitar, when I was eight, nine years old. I'm 83 now, you know. [Laughs.] I hit it August the 22nd. I don't like to publicize that too damn much. What do you think? Does it spoil the illusion? Use your own judgment on that. And I'm in good shape physically. My voice is in terrific condition, and I still can play "Pickin’ the Guitar" and "Teasin’ the Frets" – that's not easy! That takes a lot of fingering.

I still work. I play choice engagements, but I don't get out enough. I don't socialize enough to get acquainted with some of these musicians today that made it big, which I'm happy for. And I had my turn. I had my success, and I thank the good Lord that I still can sing and I still work. I played a lot of fair dates and casual dates. Just recently I played three days in Indianapolis at the Shrine show, and I was there last year. They want me back because they enjoy it. It makes me happy to know that I'm still able. As long as my health keeps up, I'm gonna keep on doing it until I can't do it any longer!

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