William ‘Bill’ Tapia was born in Liliha, Honolulu on New Year’s Day 1908. As a child he heard musicians playing at a neighbor’s house and became fascinated by the size and sound of the ukulele, which had been introduced to the Islands by Portuguese immigrants in the late 19th century.
He bought his first ukulele at age 7 for 75 cents from one of the first men to make them commercially. At 10 he came up with his own version of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which he played for troops headed for duty in the last months of World War I.
Bill Tapia, Stars and Stripes Forever:
The youngest of five children, he had to help support his mother after his father, a barber, left the family. At 12, he dropped out of school to play in vaudeville shows in Honolulu.
“I worked in every theater on the islands. The Hawaiian Amusement Company ran almost all the theaters, the big ones. I worked in the Waikiki Theater, Princess Theater, every theater.”
“I was a kid and I had a car that drove me around. I had to be at this place at 8 o’clock, I’d go and play a couple of songs. People would laugh and scream. Then I had to get in the car quickly and the guy would drive me to another theater. We were going like mad!”
During the day, he hung out with beachboys in Waikiki and taught tourists and celebrities to play the uke. He was a traveling musician on ocean liners traveling between Hawai‘i and the mainland.
He taught tourists to play the ukulele and wrote an early instruction manual; among his pupils were movie stars like Shirley Temple and Clark Gable.
At 19 he performed at nightclubs and speakeasies in Hollywood and at parties at the home of Charlie Chaplin. At 21 he sat in with Louis Armstrong’s band at a Los Angeles nightclub. By this time he was playing the banjo and guitar, in addition to the ukulele, and was moving between Hawaii and the mainland.
When the Royal Hawaiian Hotel staged its grand opening in 1927, Mr. Tapia played ukulele in the orchestra. In 1933, the Royal Hawaiian hired him to drive one of its touring cars — a yellow-and-blue seven-passenger Packard — to ferry the wealthy and famous to scenic spots.
He played the ukulele for his passengers and threw in a lesson for anyone interested. His pupils included Jimmy Durante, Shirley Temple and the stars of the Our Gang comedies. He even claimed to have taught a lick or two to Arthur Godfrey.
During World War II, Mr. Tapia organized entertainment for serviceman in Honolulu. But after World War II he switched to the guitar to get jobs playing jazz, his favorite kind of music, and for a half-century had almost nothing to do with the instrument that had defined his youth and middle age.
By 1952, he and his wife had settled in the East Bay. He worked mostly in San Francisco and Oakland, performing in house bands at top nightclubs while augmenting his income teaching guitar, banjo and uke.
His life took a turn in 2001, after both his wife (Barbie) and their daughter (Cleo) died. By then living in Orange County to be closer to relatives, Tapia rediscovered the ukulele on a visit to a music shop to have a guitar restrung.
After playing with local ukulele clubs and taking on students, he began performing ukulele shows all along the West Coast and in Hawai‘i.
Tapia was “discovered” as a ukulele virtuoso at a time when the instrument was having a resurgence of popularity. He became a ukulele star, twice making the Top 10 on the jazz charts, wowing concertgoers by playing the ukulele behind his head à la Jimi Hendrix.
In 2004, when he was 96, he released an album of ukulele music, “Tropical Swing.” A year later he released another, “Duke of Uke.”
He was elected to the Ukulele Hall of Fame. “He is truly an amazing jazz soloist,” Dave Wasser, a director at the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum, told The Times in 2007, three years after Tapia was inducted into the hall.
“He has a very smooth, graceful kind of style with the ukulele. It’s the kind of really soft, light touch that you get from somebody that has been with an instrument for many years.”
Tapia gave private ukulele lessons and continued performing live, including at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, where he celebrated his 100th birthday with a special concert. Bill Tapia died December 2, 2011 at the age of 103. (Lots of information here is from NY Times, LA Times, Star Advertiser, Reuters, Gordon, Spengler, Gilbert and Verlinde.)