The Return of the Ukulele Man

Eight decades after he first launched countless hula fantasies, it looks like Bill Tapia finally has a hit

To get to Bill Tapia’s home from Sunset Boulevard, you have to drive south on the 405, take the Brookhurst exit in Westminster, coast several miles down a six-lane thoroughfare skirted by strip malls and Vietnamese-language billboards, then follow a frontage road to a circular driveway that leads to a small ranch-style house. “It’s got a souped-up PT Cruiser sitting in front, you can’t miss it,” Tapia told me on the phone. When we met, he was sunning himself on a deck ringed with bougainvillea and large pink roses. A slight smiling man with a shock of white hair and a Roman nose, outfitted in a floral-print shirt and a matching panama hat, a navy blazer, turquoise-and-gold rings, and swimming-pool-blue argyle socks, he looked like a Latin character actor who had retired here after a lifetime of Raoul Walsh pirate films.

As he spoke about his life, Tapia narrowed his eyes, cocked his head, and embellished stories with his hands, relishing the role of the bon vivant. He has a flawless memory and recalls events that took place 75 years ago as effortlessly as someone might recall paying a previous week’s parking ticket. When he was finished, Tapia picked up a ukulele and started in on “My Little Grass Shack (in Kealakekua Hawaii),” the vaudeville-era ballad, singing in a soft, slightly unsteady baritone. He teased the meaning out of the sentimental lyrics, piled chords on top of the melody, and leaned into the beat with the unhurried sense of swing that vanished from American music soon after bebop came along. You could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to a musician of the 1920s, a sideman with Louis Armstrong’s band or maybe Fats Waller’s. You would, in fact, be correct. Tapia has played with Armstrong and Waller (and Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday), and he began performing sometime during the last years of the First World War.

Incredibly, after a half century of suburban family life, of tutoring music students at home and working sporadically in lounges and hotels, he is hot again. On the day before we met he returned from a tour of the Bay Area, where he performed three concerts—in San Jose, San Rafael, and Santa Cruz—in a single evening, gave a master class for students from as far away as France and Japan, and was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame. Best of all, at 96, he’s released his first CD, Tropical Swing, which is being compared to Buena Vista Social Club; according to Billboard’s surprising review, the recording places Tapia alongside Armstrong, Holiday, and Waller.

Tapia’s taking it all in stride: “I think I’ve finally got a hit,” he said.

Born in Honolulu on New Year’s Day; 1908, to Portuguese immigrant parents, Tapia first heard Hawaiian music played by sugarcane field-workers who gathered across from his house on Sereno Lane. He bought his first ukulele from neighbor Manuel Nunes, one of the instrument’s first commercial manufacturers, for 75 cents, and by age ten he was performing for American GIs as a USO entertainer. His showpiece was a blazing rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever”; he had heard the song played by an army marching band and banged out the drum part on the body of his ukulele. At 12, he dropped out of school to work on the local vaudeville circuit as an employee of the Hawaiian Amusement Company. A hired driver in an idling Model T waited for him to complete a seven-minute set in the break between Tom Mix westerns at the Hawaiian Theater, where he followed magicians and hula dancers; after Tapia took his bows, the driver raced him to a theater across town for his next performance. His mother pleaded with him to stay in school, and despite his successes Tapia believes she was right: “Since I left school, I never read a book all the way through.”

Sometime during his adolescence Tapia fell in love with the hot jazz he heard on records brought from the mainland and gave up the ukulele for the banjo, and later the guitar. He got his first taste of California while playing for first-class passengers aboard the SS Los Angeles, but his encounter with Hollywood took place back in Honolulu, where he was hired as a “musical driver” by the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the cakelike pink palace on Waikiki Beach that still houses the famous and wealthy. Every morning, decked out in the patent-leather boots and starched uniform of a livery chauffeur, Tapia led a caravan of gleaming seven-passenger Packards up Honolulu’s winding roads. With Diamond Head as a backdrop, he strummed a guitar and sang about the exploits of King Kamehameha for the assembled movie stars, pharmaceutical executives, and Vassar debutantes. His audiences included the likes of Clark Gable, Buster Crabbe, Jimmy Durante, and Shirley Temple, all of whom tapped him for instruction on the ukulele, the new musical craze on the mainland, where it was outselling the guitar three to one. “They didn’t learn religiously;” said Tapia. “Most of them learned only a few chords because they wanted to clown around at parties. Except Janet Gaynor—she took to the thing and learned to play real good.”

Thanks to his Hollywood contacts, in the late ’20s Tapia relocated to Los Angeles. “There was lots of work, and I spent all my money on cars and clothes.” He took up residence with George Olsen’s big band at the Beverly Wilshire, gigged at the White Horse Tavern on Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevards, worked parties at the homes of Charlie Chaplin and Loretta Young, played for gamblers aboard pleasure boats moored near Long Beach, and continued giving ukulele lessons to stars like the Little Rascals. Bing Crosby even offered him a bit part in Waikiki Wedding. His biggest paydays happened at the bootleg joints; Tapia remembers skirting police raids at a Santa Ana watering hole owned by the gangster Jimmy Walker and leading a trio at an imaginatively camouflaged Burbank bordello: “They had a radio repair shop sign in the window.”

One evening when he was 21, Tapia heard that his idol Louis Armstrong was playing on Central Avenue at Club Alabam, and Tapia sat in on the second set with Armstrong’s band, a memory that still brings a tremor to his voice. (That night he also smoked his first and last joint: “I inhaled the whole thing and got high as a kite—my eyes started tingling, my nose got tight. I got up to wind the crank on a Victrola and passed out on the floor. It’s a good thing it made me sick, because I might have become a hophead.”) For the next eight years Tapia was a regular on Central Avenue, playing with nearly every jazz great who passed through Los Angeles. His white band mates from the Olsen orchestra, with whom Tapia sometimes rented a cabin on Lake Arrowhead, didn’t let him forget it: “They called me ‘nigger lover’ and worse. But between you and me, the black guys down at Club Alabam could play circles around the white boys.”

Every year Tapia visited with family in Honolulu, and he was there on the morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Civilians were ordered to remain on the island, and Tapia was drafted; his ulcers, together with articles about him in the local papers, convinced the USO to hire him as a concert booker instead. Several months later he was fronting Tappy’s Swing Band, a 16-piece group that Tapia claims was “the best in the islands, for sure.” During the war, when the use of electric lights after the six o’clock curfew was prohibited, the band played for hundreds of dancing couples at the Honolulu Civic Auditorium, the city’s largest ballroom, in complete darkness. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” Tapia remembers.“The men didn’t mind too much, because they could cop a squeeze.” His three-month trip to Honolulu lasted seven years.

After the war ended, Tapia visited San Francisco and decided to stay; He was 40, married, and had a young daughter; he turned to teaching full-time. Before cutting his workload at 86, when his vision began to fail, Tapia taught more than a hundred private students a week to play guitar, banjo, mandolin, and other string instruments. His schedule left little time for performing.

Though Tapia collaborated with nearly every significant artist of Hawaiian music’s golden age (roughly the period between the wars)—Sol Hoopii, King Bennie Nawahi, Andy Iona, Johnny Noble—and worked with many of the masters of early jazz, his name gradually disappeared from music history The simple reason was that he rarely recorded. “I could’ve made a lot of records in the early days, but Honolulu was limited technically;” said Tapia. “You had to go to New York, a place like that.” His sole side as a leader, a tune called “Tropical Swing” recorded by Tappy’s Island Swingers for Okeh in 1936 (it is included on his CD), was not a hit. In fact, Lorene Ruymar’s The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians, probably the definitive book on the period, mentions Tapia’s name only once: “Tapia, William—member of Musicians Assoc. of Hawai’i Local 677, AFM.”

Tapia speaks about his unexpected second act with the magnanimity of someone who, near the end of his life, has been told that he inherited a Caribbean island; he’s clearly enjoying himself. When I asked what brought him back to Southern California, for the first time his face became blank and the pleasure drained from his voice.

Tapia and his wife, Barbie, moved to Orange County in 1998, after Barbie sustained a spinal injury in a fall, to live closer to their daughter, Cleo. Five months later, Cleo died unexpectedly of breast cancer that had metastasized throughout her body; Barbie, to whom Tapia had been married for 64 years, died shortly after. “I cried every day,” Fapia said. “It’s a good thing I know how to play music. Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do.” To keep busy; Tapia threw himself into teaching his ten-year-old great-grandson to play guitar.

His rediscovery began in the most unlikely of places: “I took one of my guitars to a music shop to get it fixed. A woman there was buying a ukulele. The guy who owned the shop was demonstrating it. So I said, ‘Let me see that,’ and I started playing. And the owner of the shop said, ‘Hey; who are you?’ “The store’s owner offered to drive Tapia to a meeting of a local ukulele club. “I told him okay,” Tapia said. “I hadn’t picked up a ukulele for 50 years. I didn’t even own one anymore.”

What Tapia didn’t know was that the ukulele was experiencing a new wave of popularity, the biggest since its 1920s heyday. Fed by the Internet, a legion of Web sites, books, festivals, and conventions devoted to the humble four-string instrument sprang up in less than a decade. “All these years the uke’s been stored away in people’s attics—almost everyone has a relative or at least knows someone who used to play one,” says Jim Beloff, by popular consensus the chief evangelist of the current renaissance and the man who snatched the instrument from the cultural trash heap. In 1993, Beloff, then an associate publisher at Billboard, pitched his first ukulele songbook to a dubious distributor. Today he and his wife Liz, having sold more than 150,000 copies of the Jumpin’ Jim songbooks, run a full-time ukulele business from their house in the Hollywood Hills and coordinate “Uketopia,” a kind of semiannual ukulele love-in, at McCabe’s in Santa Monica.

Thanks to the enthusiasm of the faithful, Tapia was besieged with requests from potential students, interviewed on radio stations around the country; and trailed by a crew of documentary filmmakers. With the help of a devoted 24-year-old concert producer named Alyssa Archambault, Tapia began to perform again.

In 2001, Archambault took Tapia to Fullerton to hear her friends, the Essential Resophonics, a trio, none older than 32, who played traditional Hawaiian ballads. During a break in a performance, Tapia approached lead Resophonic Buck Giles. “Ever heard of Bill Tapia?” he asked him. “Yeah, I think he passed away,” Giles replied. “No, that’s me,” Tapia told him. For the remainder of the show Giles ceded the stage to Tapia and later asked him to sit in on “Mood Indigo” for a recording session the group was doing at a studio in Costa Mesa.

“It was late and we were falling asleep when Bill showed up at the studio,” Giles remembers. “He was wearing a blazing red coat, was full of energy, and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ We were watching a master and were simply in awe—he just lit up the studio.” The session lasted for two days and produced the tracks that became Tropical Swing.

The following year Tapia and the group traveled to Hawaii; Tapia, who’s anxious about flying, had not returned since 1994. He was hired to entertain at the 75th-anniversary celebration of his old employer, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and to no one’s surprise turned out to be the sole living member of the band that played at the hotel’s opening in 1927. “At least this time they fed me,” Tapia said.

Tapia made five more trips to Hawaii, where last year he performed in front of a crowd of 25,000 in Kapiolani Park and sold out the Hawaiian Theater, where he had appeared as a 13-year-old vaudevillian.“I couldn’t believe it,” Tapia said. They screamed and screamed—they even gave me a standing ovation.”

Every Wednesday Afternoon Tapia goes to the beach. After we spoke, he and I waited in the driveway for Tapia’s friend Pat Enos, an inventor, real estate developer, and front man of a band called the Harmony Islanders, and Pat’s wife, Nancy. They drove us south in their Oldsmobile station wagon, past San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, to San Onofre State Beach, home to one of the oldest surfing clubs in Southern California. Near the parking lot, seated in the shade of a patch of bamboo, a group of men in their seventies and eighties were playing jazz. A few of them have been visiting San Onofre since the late 1930s.

Tapia has been coming here for several months. Each time he took a ukulele solo, letting the slow, unctuous chords hang in the air, the other men, some of whom had worked as session players in Los Angeles, looked up with admiration and genuine surprise. An audience of 20 or 25 regulars, sprawled out on lawn chairs, took it all in. Nobody seemed to mind that the sun had been swallowed up by clouds. Out by the breakers, surfers flashed in and out of view. Somebody’s grandkids were trying to rouse a sleeping golden retriever, and Nancy had mixed a batch of low-carb margaritas and was passing them out in Styrofoam cups.

After the jam session broke up, Tapia shook some hands and walked over to where I was standing. “That feeling, see, when I play I’m thinking, and what I’m thinking I execute on my instrument,” he told me. “I never play the same song the same way twice—I don’t know what I’m doing. I just do what my mind tells me.”

Tapia looked around conspiratorially leaned in close, and whispered, “There’s not a single thing I like about being old.” Then he climbed into Pat and Nancy’s station wagon, waved good-bye, and was gone.