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At 96, a Uke Legend Still Has Plenty of Pluck

Bill Tapia rides a wave of new interest in the instrument. He also plays to ease sadness.

April 01, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Bill Tapia is so intense about his gigs that he once played with a newly broken wrist. Over his manager's protests, he ripped off his cast, strode to the front of the hall, hunched over his ukulele and, in exquisite pain, made beautiful music.

But he was younger then, a mere 94.

Today, at 96, his ukulele passion is unabated. His first CD was just released and another is due out in May. He still performs in music store back rooms and Hawaiian restaurant jam sessions, at ukulele conventions and in concert halls. Each week, he gives lessons to 20 or so rapt students at his Westminster home. This month, he will be inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame.

"He was one of the first to play jazz standards and improvise on the ukulele, and he was doing it when both jazz and the ukulele were new," said Byron Yasui, a jazz bassist and director of graduate studies in music at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "Bill's a ukulele virtuoso."

A trim man with a white beard and a fondness for pinstripes, Tapia has been a musician all his life. As a kid in Honolulu, he entertained sailors riding out World War I at Pearl Harbor. During his long musical career on the mainland, he sat in with the likes of Louis Armstrong and taught ukulele to such stars as Clark Gable and Jimmy Durante. Now he is surfing a wave of interest in the ukulele as he resists an undertow of lingering sadness from the deaths, in the last few years, of his wife and daughter.

"Thank God I can still play," he said recently, sitting in the sunshine on the patio of the house he shares with a woman who assists him. "It helps me forget a little."

But he doesn't forget much.

As a kid, he strummed for tips on the streets of Oahu, wowing the tourists by holding his ukulele behind his neck and offering up his trademark, fast-paced "Stars and Stripes Forever."

When he was 12, his mother reluctantly let him leave school to make money for the family on the Honolulu vaudeville circuit.

"I was hanging out with musicians twice my age and didn't need school," Tapia recalled. "I thought I was pretty hot stuff."

At 16, he was offered a job with a dance band on a steamship bound for California. His family threatened him with reform school if he accepted, but he did.

"In the middle of the ocean, I sent my mother a telegram," he said. " 'Don't worry,' I told her. 'I'll be OK.' "

That trip was just his first. Over the next couple of decades, he hopped between the islands and the mainland, falling ever more in love with jazz. His popularity rose.

Tapia played ukulele and guitar with top bands and had his own group, Tappy's Island Swingers. During World War II, he led a 14-piece band in a "blackout ballroom," where couples danced in the dark as a precaution against enemy bombing raids.

For all that, Hawaii was no place for an ambitious jazzman. When the war ended, Tapia settled on the mainland for good. But big bands didn't want ukuleles, so he played the guitar, working for such swing luminaries as Charlie Barnet. Eventually settling near San Francisco, he carved out a niche teaching, doing studio sessions, playing in TV orchestras and working as a sideman in band after band.

For more than 50 years, he barely touched a ukulele on the job. At home, he broke it out from time to time. Even now, he mists up a little at the memory of playing the sweet, simple "To You Sweetheart, Aloha" for his wife and daughter.

"My daughter danced her first hula to it," he said. "They treasured that song."

In the world of bands and bookings, though, the ukulele was seen as a novelty, and Tapia had become known mostly as a guitarist. But nobody knows fast changes better than a musician.

A few years ago, Tapia and his wife, Barbie, moved to Orange County. They wanted to be near their daughter Cleo, a legal secretary who, Tapia said, "sang like Billie Holiday."

Then Cleo died of cancer at 60. Soon she was followed by Barbie, Tapia's wife of 64 years.

"I lost everybody I loved," he said. "I still cry almost every day."

Depressed, he wandered into a music store one day in 2001. He figured he would get his old guitar fixed and maybe teach his great-grandchildren a few chords. But he started fooling around with a ukulele, throwing elegant jazz riffs into tunes like "Little Grass Shack." The crew at the store was transfixed.

"They said, 'Who are you?' " he recalled.

The ukulele was surging back into favor. Ukulele clubs had taken root, and students started treating it as a folk instrument instead of a gag.

"We have much more serious players now," Yasui, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said. "It's not guys in raccoon coats strumming and singing silly songs."

Urged by friends, Tapia started attending ukulele sessions at a senior center and teaching again. At a Fullerton museum show about Hawaii, he ran into Buck Giles, leader of a Hawaiian band called the Essential Resophonics.

"Ever hear of Bill Tapia?" Tapia asked slyly.

"I think he's already passed away," Giles responded.

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