Bill Tapia, 1908–2011

The musician dubbed the ‘Duke of Uke’

Bill Tapia made fret-board acrobatics famous decades before Jimi Hendrix was born. As a child musician, the ukulele player’s trademark stunt was to play “The Stars and Stripes Forever” on the tiny instrument—while holding it behind his neck. It was a trick that he continued performing well beyond his 100th birthday.

Tapia was born in Honolulu and began playing the ukulele at the age of 7, said the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He lived down the street from the Portuguese ukulele maker Manuel Nunes, and bought his first instrument from him for 75 cents. “He wanted $1.50,” Tapia would later recall, “but it was all the money I had.” Within three years, he was playing shows for World War I soldiers in theaters in Waikiki. His unique arrangement of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” became a standard tune for “generations of Hawaiian musicians.” For years he would introduce it with the line, “Here’s a song I performed during World War I.”

Tapia began playing jazz guitar during the 1920s, said The Fretboard Journal, but the ukulele was always his instrument of choice. He moved to Hollywood, where he regaled guests in bars and clubs with Hawaiian love songs and jazz classics. Despite the Depression, Tapia “was finding more success than ever,” earning around $96 a week at a time when a four-course meal on Hollywood Boulevard cost 35 cents. World War II broke out, and Tapia did USO shows for troops, but postwar Hollywood wasn’t the same, and “the ukulele wasn’t in demand much.” Tapia returned to guitar-playing, and the world moved on.

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It wasn’t until a half century later that Tapia picked up a ukulele again, said The New York Times, at a guitar store in California. In the early 2000s, the ukulele was enjoying a “resurgence of popularity,” and Tapia was soon embraced by a new generation. He recorded his first album, Tropical Swing, at the age of 96, and would go on to record two more LPs.

Tapia played regular concerts right up until his final days, as he once predicted he would. “I was brought up with the ukulele,” he said in 2007. “I guess I’ll end with a ukulele.”

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