On December 2, 2011, Bill Tapia passed away. Two months earlier, Cameron Murray had the honour and privilege of talking to the 103-year-old ukulele legend for what proved to be Bill’s final interview. KAMUKE pays tribute to an inspirational man who lived life to the fullest.
IN 2004, I lucked out on a ticket to one of Jim Beloff’s UKEtopia concerts at the renowned McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, and it was there I saw Bill Tapia for the first time. He was 96 and blew away the sell-out crowd with his musical virtuosity, wit and charm. That same year, despite having been a professional musician for some 85 years, Bill released his first-ever solo album – the fantastic Tropical Swing – and the worldwide ukulele community sat up and took notice.
Born in Honolulu on January 1, 1908 to Portuguese parents, Tapia bought his first uke from a neighbour for about US$1.75. He was seven years old and that neighbour was none other than Manuel Nunes, the self-proclaimed “inventor” of the ukulele.
“A fellow by the name of Jim Crowl taught me,” says Bill. “I was just a kid, but they put me in all these contests, amateur contests, and I won every one.”
Tapia was soon playing his own arrangement of The Stars And Stripes Forever for American troops en route to World War I and by 12 he had quit school and got into vaudeville.
In 1927, Bill performed at the grand opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. He subsequently landed a job there as a chauffeur, driving VIP guests to scenic spots on the island and entertaining them with his uke at stops along the way. Naturally, a lot of celebrities entered his car and he would often teach them a few chords. Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Shirley Temple and Arthur Godfrey all benefitted from Tapia’s impromptu tuition.
“They liked me there because I was a good driver and I knew all these people,” says Bill. “I played ukulele and sang a little bit.”
After working on cruise ships between Hawaii and the US west coast, Tapia decided to relocate to Los Angeles after World War II, where he concentrated on playing jazz guitar and performed or jammed with the likes of Charlie Barnet, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, among many others. The ukulele took a back seat and he barely touched it for 55 years.
Enter public radio DJ and concert producer Alyssa Archambault.
“I met Bill a little over 10 years ago,” says 35-year-old Archambault. “It was the summer of 2001 and I was doing family genealogy at the time. On my mom’s side, I’ve got a pretty strong Hawaiian heritage. My great-grandparents played in vaudeville. They were part of the first wave of Hawaiians to bring their music to the mainland in the early 1900s, and when they came here, they toured the country and eventually settled in downtown LA.”
It was Hawaiian slack-key guitarist George Kahumoku Jr who suggested that Archambault should contact Bill Tapia. He knew Bill was in Los Angeles at the same time as Alyssa’s great-grandparents and thought it was possible that they may have known each other.
“I was really interested and excited about that idea,” she says, “so I gave Bill a cold call one day and started talking to him about my family. Bill basically said, ‘Why don’t you come over and show me your photos of your great-grandparents and we can talk about it?’ I had a lot of things to share, so I loaded up my car and I hung out with Bill all day. He took me out for lunch and we just had this great time.”
Although he had certainly heard of them, Tapia had never met Archambault’s relatives, but he and Alyssa quickly became friends.
“Two or three months later, I started booking him at concerts that I did locally and people were eating him up!” says Alyssa. “I started throwing ideas at him, like, ‘How would you feel about touring California?’ Or ‘How would you like to go back to Hawaii?’ And he was all for it. His wife had died just after he and I met, so I think he needed something to concentrate on. Our work together led to a record deal and more tours and more interviews.”
The year before Bill turned 100, Alyssa approached him with the idea of organising a special birthday concert.
“He didn’t even blink before he agreed,” she says. “I thought I’d give a tip of the old hat to Bill and create a vaudeville show, so I gathered all of his friends and different types of performers, from tap dancers to hula dancers and drummers and jazz bands.”
On November 18, 2007, the concert took place at the historic Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, California. Tapia had performed there once before – in either 1935 or ’36 – and he played for two solid hours before being presented with a huge birthday cake. Archambault recently released a brilliant CD recorded live at the momentous event.
Aside from his musical skill, the one thing that always set Bill apart was his sense of style.
“When I was 21, I was living in Hawaii and they had me model clothes in the theatre,” he says. “I love clothes and I wouldn’t leave the house unless I was dressed up with a jacket and everything.”
“He told me many times that being a musician back in the day was like being a doctor,” says Alyssa. “It was a big deal back then. Nowadays, for a girl to bring a musician home, it’s another story!”
Almost right up until his death, Tapia was still teaching uke, and he has some helpful hints for beginners: “Tell them to buy a ukulele and get a good book – and don’t try to learn too quick. The main thing is to learn to tune it good and learn two chords every day. And strum the chords so you can change from one to the other without breaking or stopping the rhythm. You’ll learn to play the darn thing in no time and you’ll learn it right. And tell them to put in half an hour, at least, every day.”
“I played a helluva lot of steel guitar and regular guitar and bass, but ukulele is my favourite,” reveals Bill.
Everybody likes it when you play the ukulele. I don’t know why, but they do. I played the ukulele when I was 12 years old, in 1920, when they loved it, and now it’s coming back! Everybody has a ukulele.
So what can we learn from Bill’s amazing life?
“I learnt to believe in my dreams and my passions – and to try to follow through with that in my life as much as possible,” says Archambault. “Bill did it since he was eight and it got him to 103.”
We celebrate Bill Tapia not because of his extraordinary age, but because of his extraordinary personality. In a world of fakes and imitators, he was a true original.
This article first appeared in Issue 3 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store