By Greg Cahill
They called him “Uncle Bill,” or “Tappy,” but to many he was known as “The Duke of Uke,” a pioneer of ukulele jazz. At the time of his death in 2011, at age 103, Bill Tapia was believed to be the oldest performing musician to ever take the stage.
His career spanned nine decades and put him at the center of both the 1920s ukulele explosion and, more recently, the uke revival. In between, Tapia enjoyed a formidable career as both a master ukester (and designer) and a jazz guitarist, forgoing the uke for several decades. Tapia was born in Hawaii on New Year’s Day in 1908. At age seven, he bought his first ukulele from Manuel Nunes, one of the island’s most respected ukulele makers. He once recalled that he’d shelled out 75 cents from a beat-up coffee-can-turned-piggy-bank to purchase the instrument.
In a 2008 interview, Tapia told the Orange County Register that he’d grown up listening to the lilting sounds of the little instrument that was played on the narrow dusty lanes of Honolulu. At age 11, at the end of World War I, he entertained troops returning from the front lines by playing ukulele for the veterans, even venturing into Honolulu’s tough neighborhoods to shine shoes and greet soldiers and sailors disembarking from the trains. As a child, he once was arrested when police raided a bordello where he was playing for servicemen. “There were prostitutes and bootleggers, but I could make money!” he told the National Association of Music Merchants in a 2004 oral history. “I’d come home with my pockets full of silver.”
By age 12, he’d mastered the ukulele. According to Ian Whitcomb, author of Ukulele Heroes: The Golden Age, Tapia was a key figure in the island’s hapa haole culture, which included music that mixed Hawaiian and English influences. He was an associate of Sonny Cunha, the musician, bandleader, and politician regarded as the founder of hapa haole music. And, Whitcomb writes, Tapia played in the Johnny Noble Band at the historic opening night of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki in 1927. He also taught child film star Shirley Temple and actor Clark Gable to play the ukulele (Tapia played on many movie soundtracks and taught several other actors to master the instrument). And he provided the uke playing on Bing Crosby’s hit record “Blue Hawaii,” featured in the 1937 film Waikiki Wedding.
After World War II, Tapia gave away his ukuleles and for nearly a half century turned his attention to jazz guitar, landing jobs with such music greats as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, and Charlie Barnet. In 2001, after a chance encounter at an LA music store where he had gone for a guitar repair, Tapia rekindled his interest in ukulele. “Something astonishing happened,” the New York Times wrote in his obituary. “Mr. Tapia was ‘discovered’ as a ukulele virtuoso at a time when the instrument was having a resurgence of popularity. He became a ukulele star, twice making the Top 10 on the jazz charts, wowing concertgoers by playing the ukulele behind his head à la Jimi Hendrix, and making three albums—one of which honored his 100th birthday. He was elected to the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2004.” “Bill Tapia has been involved with the ukulele, jazz, and Hawaiian music perhaps longer than any other living person,” the Hall of Fame said when it inducted him.
“It was in my blood,” he said. But the master musician’s life wasn’t wholly defined by the uke. As a jazz man with a guitar, Tapia performed pretty much everywhere—from houses of ill repute to swanky hotels, such as the Los Angeles Biltmore. He played for soldiers during World War I and in “blackout ballrooms” during World War II. He played radio and television shows, and, once, at baseball legend Joe DiMaggio’s bar in San Francisco. “The ukulele looked like a toy compared to the guitar,” Tapia said. So, when he put it away, he didn’t pick it back up—until 55 years later when someone heard him play it at an Orange County music shop. Soon, people were asking him to play concerts and give them lessons. His agent and publicist, Mark Taylor, said Tapia was a regular at the Oasis Senior Center in Newport Beach and played every Wednesday on the beach in San Onofre with a group of ukulele enthusiasts.
Taylor said Tapia is the oldest performing musician for whom he has ever worked. “He was not just a novelty act,” Taylor said. “He was a real musician. He had real jazz chops.” Tapia also delighted his fans with his colorful personality and his sartorial elegance. “We had booked a show in Arcadia two years ago and a 101-year-old woman walked up to him and said, ‘I’m so happy to meet you because it’s so hard to meet men my age these days,’” Taylor said. Tapia was always impeccably dressed, whether he was on the stage or at home.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Ukulele magazine.