Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bill Tapia

 A L O H A 
photo courtesy Cindy Ellen Russell/

" He was believed to be the oldest living 
performing musician -
jazz ukulele legend Bill Tapia is dead.

He passed away peacefully in his sleep at home in Westminster, California on December 2nd at the age of 103.

 With a career that spanned over 90 years,
he was the last living link to the earliest days
of both jazz and the ukulele
as a popular instrument.

Born New Years Day 1908 in Honolulu, 
Tapia got his first instrument at the age of 7
from Manuel Nunes, one of the first
and most respected ukulele makers
in Hawai’i. 

 He started his career entertaining 
World War I troops
at USO shows in 1918.

 After seeing John Philip Sousa’s band perform,
he came up with a unique version of
Stars and Stripes Forever
that was later copied 
by numerous Hawaiian musicians.

 From that point on, he never stopped performing 
and sharing his love of music,
infectious wit and charming personality
with one and all.

 Bill spent his early career
bouncing back and forth from Hawai’i
to the West Coast playing on steamships.

 He performed as a backup musician with such luminaries as Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, 
Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, 
as well as everyone who was anyone 
in the early Hawaiian music scene.

 He played with Johnny Noble’s band
at the opening of the 
iconic Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1927,
returning to perform
at the hotel’s reopening in

 For a time he was employed as a “musical driver”, serving as a tour guide 
and teaching a few ukulele chords
to Hollywood stars including Clark Gable
and Shirley Temple
during the instrument’s first
national craze.  

Tapia spent World War II in Honolulu
leading a 14 piece band in “blackout ballrooms”
with all the lights out 
to avoid possible detection
by Japanese bombers.

After the war, Bill relocated to the San Francisco area, continuing to tour for several years with swing bands such as Charlie Barnet’s group. 

 Tiring of life on the road,
he settled down with wife Barbie and daughter Cleo, playing in TV orchestras,
as a sideman with local bands,
and teaching guitar.  

An entire generation of Bay Area guitarists
have fond memories of learning their first licks
from “Tappy” at Campagna Music in Lafayette,
where he worked for several decades.

Around the turn of the last century, 
Bill lost both his wife and daughter
and relocated to Orange County to be closer to relatives.

 Soon after, he was rediscovered
and embarked on perhaps the unlikeliest career comeback in music history. 

 Returning to his ukulele roots, he released his first CD “Tropical Swing” in 2004 at the age of 96,
featuring jazz and Hawaiian standards.  

The title track was a 1936 recording
on Okeh Records, his only previous release.

 Riding the wave of a new ukulele resurgence, 
Bill was soon in demand at clubs and festivals
up and down the West Coast, Hawai’i, 
New York and even Japan.  

He followed up Tropical Swing
with Duke of Uke (2005) and Livin’ It LIve (2009), showcasing his amazing live show.

All three of these CDs made the national jazz charts
and received airplay 
on hundreds of radio stations nationwide. 

 Earlier this year, Live at the Warner Grand
was released, documenting
his 100th birthday concert.

 Slowed but not stopped by a broken hip, 
Tapia continued to tour until late in 2010.

Bill Tapia was inducted into 
the Ukulele Hall of Fame
in 2004, and received 
a Lifetime Achievement Award
from the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts
in 2011.

 He was perhaps the most beloved
and revered 
figure in the ukulele world, 
and everyone who ever knew him
or saw him perform
will be forever inspired. 
  Funeral arrangements are pending."

 Guitarist Jeff Peterson told the Honolulu Star Bulletin that "- despite his age
Tapia was always fully engaged with the performance
and would call out key changes and solo performances 
with the precision of a band leader half his age."

 Jeff told a local TV station
that Bill often spoke of life 
in the Hawaii of an earlier day,
including seeing
Queen Liliuokalani's
funeral procession.

Headlining in Heaven now, 
the incomparable BILL TAPIA-