Today: The remarkable 95 year career of Bill Tapia, the “Duke of Uke.”
On December 2nd, 2011, Bill Tapia, one of the world’s greatest ukulele players died peacefully in his sleep, a month before his 104th birthday. Despite his age, Bill was a top ukulele player to the end of his life. Born in Honolulu on January 1st, 1908, as a boy he listened to sugar cane workers play Hawaiian music and fell in love with their songs and the ukulele. When Bill was 7 years old, he bought his first ukulele for 75 cents and was soon joyfully playing it.
Then suddenly Bill’s life took a terrible turn. When he was just 8 years old his father deserted his family and the little boy dropped out of school to become a street musician to earn tips to help his mother. But at the age of 10 in 1918, World War l brought him a child sized financial bonanza by entertaining the U.S. troops on their way to war. Bill had developed into such a talented ukulele player; he joined the vaudeville circuit just two years later.
Soon he was also playing on luxury liners and at 19; he began playing at fancy Hawaiian hotels, at Hollywood and other fashionable bootleg and gambling joints and at Charlie Chaplin’s parties. Bill had become one of the best known ukulele players in the world and played with such stars as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and Bing Crosby. It was the roaring 20’s and to capitalize on the popular music of the time, Bill also played the guitar and banjo, talents that served him well when the Great Depression of the 1930’s hit and jobs were scarce.
Desperate for work, in 1933 Bill took a job with the fancy Royal Hawaiian Hotel driving a blue and yellow Packard touring car, conducting scenic tours for the rich and famous. During the tours, he would play the ukulele for them and they so enjoyed it, he taught ukulele to Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, the Our Gang comedy kids and to other stars of the time.
During World War ll in the 1940’s, Bill organized shows for U.S. soldiers in Honolulu and when the war ended he and his wife Barbie and daughter Cleo relocated to San Francisco where he played jazz guitar for popular Big Bands of the era. To supplement his income, Bill taught jazz guitar to students, and ukulele to anyone who was interested.
More than a half century passed and Bill had long been forgotten by music fans when while doing research on her great-great-grandfather, a guitar player, disc jockey and record promoter Alyssa Archambault met Bill and was intrigued by his story and his music. Bill was depressed, for when he was 93 years old in 2001, Barbie, his wife of 64 years and then their daughter Cleo had died.
By then Bill had moved to Orange County, California to be near his family and to lift his spirits he played the ukulele, even at 93 teaching students and playing in local clubs. Alyssa began working with him and as a result, in 2004, Bill at 96 years of age released an album, “Tropical Swing.” A year later, he released a second album the “Duke of Uke” and from these albums ukulele master Bill Tapia was back in the public’s eye.
Now that he was back, Bill helped to re-popularize the ukulele hitting the Top 10 twice on the jazz charts. And while in concert, putting on great shows, even playing the ukulele behind his head as rock star Jimi Hendrix had done with his guitar in the 1960’s.
When Bill was 99, Alyssa asked him if he wanted to host a concert on his 100th birthday. He was delighted and on his 100th birthday, Bill held a concert at the historic movie palace, the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro, CA, the very place he had hosted a concert when it opened in 1931, nearly 80 years earlier. In June, 2011 the concert footage was released as his third album, “Live at the Warner Grand.”
Bill regularly played concerts until February of 2011 and even played at a local senior center just several weeks before he passed away. Because of the longevity of his life and his career, a line Bill often used that amused audiences was, “Here’s a song I performed during World War l,” for it seemed unreal that after all these years he could still be out there entertaining them.
Success Tip of the Week:
As Bill showed us at 93; it’s never too late to launch or to re-launch the career of your dreams.
To see Bill Tapia perform on his 100th birthday in a 2 minute video, please click on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYW4NOKS3jQ To learn more about him, please see a list of his obituaries from around the world http://billtapia.com/
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