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At 99, he’s back with his first love--the ukulele

Times Staff Writer

The walls on the entryway of Bill Tapia’s Westminster home are covered with photographs documenting a career that found him playing with such jazz greats as Charlie Barnet, Joe Pass and Barney Kessel. The photos weave a path to his studio, where a ukulele sits on a stand.

Atop a varnished chest, fliers announce performances by the 99-year-old musician -- at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center last week, and at the Huntington Beach Library today.

“Any place they let me play music, I’ll play,” Tapia said. “Just give me my ukulele and I’m a happy young man. It’s very thrilling to know all these young people want to see me perform.”

Tapia, slim, with a white beard and a fashion sense best described as clashing, was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum in Rhode Island in 2004.

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“He is truly an amazing jazz soloist,” said Dave Wasser, a director the museum. “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’s love of the ukulele began when he was 7. He was entranced by the melodies his neighbors performed sitting on logs near his home in Honolulu.

“I was so drawn to the music that I walked across the street and just stared at the ukulele player,” Tapia said. “When he stopped, I picked up the ukulele, and, by watching him, I was able to play some chords.”

By 10, he was playing at shows that entertained WWI servicemen. At 12, after his father deserted the family, his mother took him out of school to work on the vaudeville circuit in hopes that he could support them.

But at 16, the Hawaiian music he played no longer interested him. “I wanted to play with jazz bands, and they weren’t using ukuleles, they used banjos and guitars. So I learned to play them.”

He played in a string of touring bands. He jammed with Louis Armstrong -- and smoked marijuana with him. He taught the ukulele to Shirley Temple, Clark Gable and Jimmy Durante.

He settled in San Francisco to raise a family, playing around town and teaching jazz guitar.

For the next 55 years, he barely touched the ukulele, except when he played for his wife and daughter.

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He retired in 1998 and moved to Orange County.

His wife and daughter died in 2001. “I lost the two people who meant the world to me,” Tapia said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

He wandered into a music store with the intention of fixing a guitar, but found himself unable to ignore one of the ukuleles on display, playing jazz riffs that fascinated the store crew.

Encouraged by friends, Tapia found himself going back to the instrument of his childhood for consolation, this time playing jazz.

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Tapia’s charisma was even captured in a documentary about him, “To You Sweetheart, Aloha,” which aired on PBS last year.

“I was blown away by him as a performer,” said Leo Chiang, producer/director of the film. “He has this ability to draw the audience in. He’s a musical comedian, telling jokes in between the songs.”

Every other week, Tapia gives ukulele lessons to a dozen students at his home. “I enjoy teaching because I don’t want to forget what I’ve done all my life,” Tapia said. “Everyone should have music in their life and in their soul; it’s the best companion.”

When he isn’t in his tiny studio, Tapia said, he enjoys working in his flower garden and decorating his home with Oriental-inspired pieces.

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But a vibrant rose or porcelain vase can’t compare to the delight he gets from taking his ukulele from its stand and playing a few riffs.

“I was brought up with the ukulele and, I guess, I’ll end with a ukulele.”

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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