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At 100 years old, he's found a tiny musical destiny

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The Orange County Register (MCT) - As Bill Tapia held his ukulele on stage in the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, the last 100 years of his life flashed before his eyes like a vision in IMAX.

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By Deepa Bharath
McClatchy Newspapers (
9/9/2008 (1 decade ago)

Published in Music

Tapia saw himself, little Willy, dishing out 75 cents from his beat-up coffee can to buy his first ukulele from a beer-bellied folk singer.

He saw himself as Young Willy, 10, giving ukulele lessons to grown men. Willy was the first in the islands, or, for that matter, anywhere, to produce divine jazz from, yes, a ukulele.

He even saw himself as the 12-year-old who quit school to hit the road and entertain the masses with a vaudeville group. That's how he became Bill Tapia, the accomplished jazz guitarist, who jammed with such all-time greats as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Billy Holiday, Fats Waller and Charlie Barnett.

A century galloped by and Tapia was back where he started.

The 100-year-old stood, still elegant, in his tuxedo and shimmering silver hair and beard; his still-nimble fingers decked in rings of turquoise and gold, his neck adorned with a ruby encrusted golden crucifix.

He was at home, in Honolulu, at the same hotel where he had performed as a young man.

Holding a ukulele.

A ukulele _ the bonsai of instruments _ the one he dismissed pretty much the instant he mastered it. The ukulele that wasn't quite as cool as a guitar or even a banjo. He even gave away his "good Pineapple ukuleles" because they looked like toys. At least that's what Willy thought when he was, well, Willy.

Jazz was his genre, his livelihood, his passion; the guitar his instrument.

The last time he really played a ukulele, Tapia was a teenager.

He had to wait more than half a century to get it in his head that there was no escaping destiny.

He was, indeed, the ukulele man.

Tapia doesn't remember the first time he heard the lilting melodies.

But he can remember being just 5 years old, and listening to men play the ukulele as they sat on logs and orange crates on a narrow, dimly-lit, dusty lane in Honolulu. They'd play all night, smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey.

Little Willy was hooked.

"I don't know what it was about the ukulele," he says. "It was all about the sound. There was an air of something simple and nostalgic."

So the little boy bought his first ukulele and started playing. He got two lessons from one of those guys playing down the street. Two years, later Willy was giving them lessons.

"I started playing and somehow, it all came together."

But when the big stage beckoned, Tapia put away the little instrument.

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As a jazz man, with a guitar, Bill Tapia performed pretty much everywhere _ from houses of ill repute to swanky hotels like the Los Angeles Biltmore. He played for soldiers in World War I and in "blackout ballrooms" in World War II. He played radio and television shows, and, once, even Joe DiMaggio's bar in San Francisco.

"I loved performing," Tapia says. "It was the best feeling."

It was how he met his wife, Barbie, 14 years his junior. She came to one of his shows at a hotel in Honolulu.

"She and her sister, they wanted me to take them home because they missed the last streetcar and it was pretty late at night," he recalls.

Soon it became a ritual. She would come to his shows and he would take her home. One time, she sang "On the Good Ship Lollipop" as they were driving back home. It was completely out of tune. That was the night he fell in love with her.

They moved to San Francisco and raised their children, even as he travelled and taught string instruments (except the ukulele) to more than 100 students a month. They settled in Westminster in 1998, kicking off yet another chapter in Tapia's life.

Tapia says Barbie was a great cook, a nurturing wife and mother who "took care of everything" until she fell seriously ill. And then, he took care of her until she died.

That was about seven years ago. He was 93. And the last thing he wanted to do was pick up a ukulele.


It happened when Tapia least expected it.

He walked into a music shop to get his guitar strung when he saw a woman trying to play a ukulele.

"I saw she was having some problems, so I offered to test it out for her."

When he started playing, a bevy of listeners gathered around. One of them was the owner of the music shop, who was also a member of several ukulele clubs in Orange County.

Soon, he was performing throughout Southern California. The ukulele man was back _ after a 55-year hiatus.

He still teaches, performs and has two albums of ukulele music awaiting release. At 100, Tapia calls himself "semi-retired."

Tapia believes the ukulele is his destiny. It's always been. He just didn't know it.

Today when he picks it up, he closes his eyes and his fingers glide side to side as if they'd never stopped.

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"The ukulele was what first drew me to music. Now, I realize I made a mistake by ignoring it all these years. I gave away all my good ukuleles. I shouldn't have done that."

When he plays the ukulele, it brings back memories of a time he can never go back to.

"People stopped and said 'Hello;' looked out for one another. ... People liked to get dressed up, even if it was for nothing," he says with a laugh. "Good times."

On May 30, 2008, 70 years after he worked as a singing limo driver for the Royal Hawaiian, Tapia returned to play the grand Monarch Room, headlining the hotel's pre-demolition show with his ukulele.

When the hotel reopens after its remodel, Tapia says, he may be 102 or 103.

He plans to return. And, when he puts pick to string, the ukulele man will know he's home.


© 2008, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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