The Old Man and the 'Uke
“I’m 96 years young,” Bill Tapia proclaims in a voice so raspy it’s like sandpaper being dragged across the other end of the receiver. But that’s not the end of the story by a long shot. He boasts, “I was born on New Year’s Day, and let me tell you this, my mother was born on New Year’s Day and my father was born on New Year’s Day, too! That came out in an article by Ripley in 1920. Do you know who that is?” he asks, as if he’s interviewing me. “Yes, sir,” I say with confidence, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” “That’s right!” he declares, with the enthusiasm of a game show host. It’s hard not to like him.
Which is why, I suspect, the Honolulu-born jazz ukulele musician is still going strong with his recently released CD, Tropical Swing. It is a collection that blends contemporary jazz and vintage tunes, made into Hawaiian kitsch with his virtuoso ukulele performances. And if recording isn’t difficult enough to do at his, or any age, Tapia still teaches music to hundreds of students in his home in Los Angeles and has an upcoming concert tour through Santa Cruz, San Jose, San Rafael, Hayward and Berkeley. “I’m busy, you know,” he says. “And that can be kinda rough for a 96-year-old man with termites.”
You may know some of Tapia’s other students by name: Shirley Temple, Jimmy Durante, John Gilbert, Clark Gable, Janet Gaynor. “I taught all of them how to play the ukulele,” he says, with so much pride I can hear him smile.
Before leaving the Islands, Tapia had become a household name. “I played in the Hawaii Theatre when I was 13 years old. And I packed that same place last November  when I came for a concert. When I was young, I played at the Princess Theater, the Kaimukï Theater, the Queen Theater, the Kahuku Theater and the Palama Theater. I played everywhere. Everything’s gone now except me!”
He dreamed of “making it big” in jazz, and so his fortunes took him to the sea. “I left when I was 16 to work on the boats. I worked on the SS Kalawai. That was a sister ship to the City of Los Angeles. They went from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Now, let me tell you this; they would both leave at the same time—one from Honolulu and the other from Los Angeles. They would meet in the middle of the ocean and they would stop. The bands would come on deck and play and throw streamers. Do you know what they are?” he asks, so I don’t miss the imagery of all of the silliness that took place in the middle of the vast, blue Pacific Ocean back then. “I don’t know why they stopped doing that. It was so much fun. Later I played on the Matson boats: the SS Maui and Manoa.”
Tapia was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame last month, in Santa Cruz, Calif. He is only the 14th inductee and the only living person to be inducted. What’s next for the unstoppable Tapia? “Maybe I’ll find a young girl who can bear children and I can start a whole new life with a family. What do you think?” he asks rhetorically.