Friday, April, 23, 2004

A vintage sound
Bill Tapia will play gigs all weekend and be inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame. Not bad for 96.

The Orange County Register

WESTMINSTER – Think you're busy?

Try keeping up with Bill Tapia, 96, who took a break from giving private ukulele lessons this week to hit the road performing in five cities in three days. Nine-hundred miles round trip.

Oh, and tonight he'll be inducted in the Ukulele Hall of Fame.

"It's crazy," Tapia said Thursday from a cell phone in his souped-up PT Cruiser heading to Santa Cruz. "They think I'm 16 years old."

Maybe because he acts that way.

Beside him in the car sat a friend called King Kukulele, a sort-of comic Tiki minstrel.

"This weekend, I'm going to hear a lot of ukulele players," said the king, a ukuleleist named Denny Moynahan, 39, formerly of Buena Park. "But I won't hear any other ukulele player who was on Waikiki on Pearl Harbor Day or who performed for troops of World War I or who performed with Louie Armstrong. He's like a walking history book."

At an age when most people are lucky to walk on their own, Tapia still works, giving private lessons to 20 students and performing three times a week. He's a flirt, a raconteur and a ukulele legend, having taught film stars Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Shirley Temple and even Arthur Godfrey, who popularized the ukulele on the mainland. Tapia recently released two CDs, and he's the subject of an upcoming documentary for public television.

• Bill Tapia will be inducted into Ukulele Hall of Fame tonight at Uke Fest West, which continues through Sunday in Santa Cruz. For information, see
• Hall of Fame Museum was founded in 1996 in Duxbury, Mass.
• Information on “Ukulele Man” documentary on Bill Tapia produced by Walking Iris Films is at
• Ukulele player tunes instrument to song “My Dog Has Fleas.” Tuning of strings is G/C/E/A.

"He has this philosophy - he doesn't want to stop," said Los Angeles filmmaker Leo Chiang, co-producer of the film "Ukulele Man." "It almost seems like he's afraid if he stops, he'll never get started again. This is how he keeps going - by keeping going."

Chiang saw Tapia perform two years ago at a screening of "From Here to Eternity" in an old downtown L.A. theater.

"He was incredibly charismatic and absolutely mesmerizing," Chiang said. "I could see everyone's face light up. He was joking and flirting with the audience. I thought someone should be making a film about this guy, and somebody probably already has."

But no one had. Why? Probably for the same reason no one had thought to induct Tapia in the Hall of Fame before. See, at 96, Tapia is both a newcomer to and old hand at the ukulele. At age 7, he bought his first ukulele from the very man who invented it - a Honolulu neighbor named Manuel Nunes.

"I lived on a lane," Tapia said, "and every night I'd hear these Hawaiians, they'd sit down on logs and orange crates, playing and singing. I'd hear that every night, and it grew into me."

By 12, he was good enough to quit school and join vaudeville. By 15, he was a regular at the Moana Hotel with Johnny Noble. In 1927, he played the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, but his heart was already lost to jazz. He learned to play jazz guitar and let the ukulele slip away.

Not before he taught the likes of Gable, Durante and Buster Crabbe, who Tapia met as a "musical driver" for the Royal Hawaiian, chauffeuring them to scenic turnouts on the island, then stopping to serenade them with his ukulele.

But soon after, he returned to the mainland and for the next 55 years, barely touched a ukulele. In fact, he sold his old relics. He played jazz guitar at small rooms that paid him in meals and at the Beverly Wilshire.

"I've played in gambling joints, bootleg joints, prostitute joints, and I've played in the best places in the world and met all different walks of people," he said. "Yet, I don't take dope. I don't drink. I had one bad habit - I smoked 11/2 packs of cigarettes every day until I was 87."

He smoked marijuana once - while jamming with Louie Armstrong.

"One of the guys gave me a joint," he said, "but it made me sick, and I never took it no more."

In 1998, he retired to Westminster but Barbie, his wife of more than 60 years, was in decline. She died three years later. Their daughter Cleo, 60, died a few months later.

"Almost every day, I cry," he said. "They've been gone 21/2 years, and I can't get over it."

His life changed on July 31, 2001.

That's when a young woman, a public radio DJ and board operator, visited him in hopes of learning about her great-great-grandfather, a Hawaiian steel guitar player.

The two hit it off.

"I knew I had to get him out there playing again because he was the Hawaiian version of the Buena Vista Social Club," said Alyssa Archambault, 27, of Los Angeles, referring to a group of older Cuban musicians reunited decades after their heyday.

And, so, Tapia's ukulele career was resurrected.

This time, he brought a unique blend of jazz techniques to the ukulele. And a lifetime of charm. And history. Right as a ukulele boon was surging throughout the nation. It was as if he were riding some kind of karmic wave 90 years in the making.

"He just knows how to captivate an audience with his singing, his playing, his hesitation and his humor," Archambault said. "He's got his little underground fan club that just keeps growing. And he knows how to charm the ladies. They like to be around him."

Soon, he was getting standing ovations. Playing back at the Royal Hawaiian. Sitting in with Don Ho. Recording CDs. Performing before 25,000 people at a festival in Honolulu. He caught the ear of University of Hawaii music professor Byron Yasui, 63, who has recorded more than 70 albums.

Yasui performed on Tapia's latest CD and nominated him for the Hall of Fame.

"Nobody had ever heard of him," Yasui said of the diehard ukulele crowd. "I said, 'This is a crying shame, because he can play circles around a lot of them in the Hall of Fame.' And he's still alive. Why wait till he dies to eulogize him?"

Yasui will induct Tapia tonight in the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom in Santa Cruz, kicking off a three-day ukulele festival called Uke Fest West.

And so begins Tapia's wild weekend, which will take him from Santa Cruz to San Jose to San Rafael to Hayward to Sacramento before cruising home in his customized PT Cruiser, decked out in chrome, wood paneling, "gangster" whitewalls and leather roof.

"I've got to keep going until Gabriel blows his horn," Tapia said. "Maybe he wants me to play in his band in heaven."

Now that he's quit smoking, however, he doesn't plan on that until he's at least 110. Which gives him time, he suggests wryly, to maybe start another family.

Such an attitude, such breakneck weekends, are probably what keep Tapia so vibrant, said filmmaker Chiang, whose documentary is expected to air next year.

"It's about him not aging gracefully," Chiang said. "It's about him fighting the aging process every step of the way. Really, it's about him making the best out of every moment he has and how music is a huge motivation of that. He lives to play, and he plays to live."

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