Silver Star Bill Tapia
World’s oldest professional ukulele performer
When you’ve been around for 101 years, you’ve seen a few things. When you’ve been a performer for 91 of those years, you have more than a few stories to tell. And when you can still tell those stories, including stopping to offer dates and proper spellings of the players involved without skipping a beat, you’re sure to leave people drop-jawed.
And so I was. Bill Tapia is quite simply astonishing. A lifelong professional musician, on ukulele, guitar, and banjo, who has played with countless famous people, he’s still hard at work in his career—so hard that, if we didn’t know any better, we’d say he was still trying to build it. Once upon a time, he was one of the many layers of sound in big bands; now, he’s the lead guy. He released his first two CDs four years ago, and a new one is coming out in a few months. In April, he’ll go on tour. In the meantime, he gives private lessons to 20 students.
His instrument of choice has switched around over the years. He started in ukulele, moved to banjo, then jazz guitar, then back to the ukulele, where he remains today.
He is older than much of the music he plays, and he can top most people on the number of “firsts” and “onlys” to his name. For example, he performed at the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu in 1927 and was the only original performer still alive when the hotel celebrated its 75th anniversary. He was invited to play for that occasion and again for the 80th anniversary.
He’s the world’s oldest professional ukulele performer. To understand the historical significance of this, John Berger of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote: “To hear Tapia play is to hear a man who was born barely one generation after the ukulele evolved out of the Portuguese braguinha or machete, and whose first teachers came out of that first generation of Hawaiian ukulele players.”
His first ukulele was made by someone he knew then only as a neighbor who didn’t like the neighborhood kids. But Manuel Nunes was actually one of the first ukulele makers. A used instrument cost the eight-year-old boy 75 cents.
Though some musical blood ran in his family, Tapia is the only one who became a professional performer. He found out later in life that his father—who had deserted his wife and five children when Bill was eight—was a musician as well. Some 35 years later, he found his father, who was in his 80s and still played harmonica and flute. The only other family member involved in music was one of Tapia’s three brothers, who played a number of instruments “but played with ordinary guys.” His brother liked to fight, and after a particularly brutal one, “he was no good anymore,” Tapia said. “His mind would change every now and then.”