Bill Tapia: 1908-2011

I just heard the sad news that ukulele legend, Bill Tapia, passed away in December of 2011.

Tapia played ukulele from the age of 7 until his death, in Westminster, CA, at 103 years old.

As described by the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Born in Hawaii to Portuguese parents, Tapia could recall playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” for American doughboys heading off to World War I in 1918. His longevity was amazing, but what was most impressive was the way he could distill nearly a century of musical experience on the bandstand, delivering graceful, harmonically sophisticated renditions of jazz standards and Hawaiian swing on the diminutive four-string uke. While he had only gained fame late in life, he spent much of his career in the company of musical royalty as an ace accompanist to stars like Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.

Tapia returned to the Bay Area for performances as recently as 2009 at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center and Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage with bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Akira Tana and Hawaiian jazz singer Mihana, the same cast captured on his recent album “Livin’ It Live” (recorded partly at the Freight). I caught up with him by phone in Hawaii, where he had just headlined a packed concert marking the reopening of Honolulu’s famed Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Does he remember the first time he performed at the “Pink Palace of the Pacific”?

“I opened up that hotel!” Tapia said. “I played in there with Johnny Noble’s band opening night on Feb. 1, 1927. We had eight pieces and we played a lot of Hawaiian songs and dance music.”

A vaudeville veteran at 13, Tapia helped support his family by busking on Honolulu beaches. By the early 1920s, when jazz was in its infancy, he had figured out how to infuse pop and Hawaiian tunes with a lilting sense of swing on the uke, but his love of jazz soon led him to banjo and guitar. It’s only in recent years that he returned to the ukulele, just as renewed interest in the instrument started gathering force.

“When I was about 16 I gave all my ukuleles away,” Tapia says. “They never used them in bands, and I wanted to play in bands. When I picked it up again seven years ago, everybody went crazy about ukulele all over the country, and I’ve been playing concerts all over.” While based in Orange County later in life, Tapia spent about four decades living in the Bay Area, performing in bands at the Tonga Room in the Fairmont Hotel, while teaching guitar at Sherman Clay and Campana Music in Lafayette. Musically, his biggest thrill took place down south.

Working in Hollywood before World War II, he befriended the legendary electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian. “He was my hero,” Tapia said. “I loved that guy. He had a style of his own, and until today, every guitarist plays some of his stuff. We jammed from 1 to 4 a.m. after his gig at the Palomar with Benny Goodman, just him and me and a bass player.”

Rest in peace, Bill Tapia. The ukulele will miss your virtuosity.

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