Bill Tapia dies at 103; virtuoso ukulele player

Bill Tapia, a virtuoso ukulele player from Hawaii who learned to strum the instrument at age 7, performed for U.S. troops during World War I and was still touring and teaching well after hitting the century mark, has died. He was 103.

Tapia died in his sleep Friday at his home in Westminster, said his booking agent, Mark Taylor.

Tapia was born in Honolulu on New Year’s Day in 1908. As a child he heard musicians playing at a neighbor’s house and became fascinated by the size and sound of the ukulele, which had been introduced to the Hawaiian islands by Portuguese immigrants in the late 19th century.


For 75 cents he bought one and quickly learned to make music. By age 10 he was entertaining military troops stationed on Oahu with his arrangement of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” He left school and became a vaudeville performer and traveling musician on ocean liners traveling between Hawaii and the mainland. He taught tourists to play the ukulele and wrote an early instruction manual; among his pupils were movie stars like Shirley Temple and Clark Gable.

“I was brought up with a ukulele,” he told The Times in 2007, “and I guess I’ll end with a ukulele.”

In the ‘20s Tapia discovered jazz and eventually set aside the ukulele in favor of the banjo and guitar. He played with bands in Honolulu, L.A., and San Francisco in between steamship crossings. One of his gigs was at the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach in 1927.

After World War II Tapia and his wife, Barbie, left Honolulu for the San Francisco Bay Area. For decades he played and taught jazz guitar.

His life took a turn in 2001, after both his wife and their daughter, Cleo, died. By then living in Orange County to be closer to relatives, Tapia rediscovered the ukulele on a visit to a music shop to have a guitar restrung. After playing with local ukulele clubs and taking on students, he began performing ukulele shows all along the West Coast and in Hawaii.

In 2004, when he was 96, he released an album of ukulele music, “Tropical Swing.” A year later he released another, “Duke of Uke.”

On stage Tapia would do his renditions of nostalgic Hawaiian favorites like “Little Grass Shack” and “I Want to Learn to Speak Hawaiian,” as well as “Stardust,” “Crazy,” “In a Mellow Tone” and other standards.

“He is truly an amazing jazz soloist,” Dave Wasser, a director at the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum, told The Times in 2007, three years after Tapia was inducted into the hall. “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.”

When he was 99, his friend and producer Alyssa Archambault asked him whether he felt like having a 100th-birthday celebration.

The result was a concert at the Warner Grand theatre in San Pedro — an ornate old movie palace that he played when it opened in 1931. His “Live at the Warner Grand” CD came out recently.

He continued to tour until this year, playing his last show in February at a Hawaiian music festival, Taylor said. And he was teaching until a few weeks ago.

Survivors include grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.