Bill Tapia was a direct link to ukulele history, In fact, he knew everybody who was somebody on the ukulele and Hawaiian music scene. Because of his rich history and his colorful personality he was also the best story teller I have ever met in my entire life.
He walked in like it was still 1929. Being a visual person, I was immediately intrigued by his presence. He was aged, of small stature and wearing a jacket with a fur collar, the length of which extended approximately ten inches from the ground. What really struck me were the red shoes he was wearing! Awesome! Pure sheer awesomeness! I love it! I'm all over it! I think he was 97-years-old and man could he play ukulele!!
As the days pass by, I miss him more. It's strange. When someone is 103-years-old you expect that their days will come to an end and yet I am left with the feeling that he left too soon. Suddenly, I find myself wanting to hold on to everything....pieces of paper with music notations written quickly across a hand drawn staff...whole musical scores he wrote out for me off the top of his head! I suddenly want to take them out of my music book and study them and then frame them...protect them.
He would often share memory's of his life. Bill Tapia loved reminiscing about his boyhood on the island of Oahu. I listened as he recalled a memory from years back. It was an evening in Honolulu and he was about 7-years-old. Bill lay quietly in his room listening. It was his bedtime and he could hear live music coming from neighbors, who lived across the street from him. It was the home of Lydia and David Bray, my tutu's (grandmother) auntie and uncle. They would put on splendid luau's at their home and collect a fee from tourist "Oh, how I wanted to go over there and play music with them!", Uncle Bill had told me. I sat there amazed, here was a gentleman from a bygone era, sharing stories of my ohana (family) with me! I am grateful to him for that gift.
One day while I was visiting him I asked, "Uncle, did you happen to know Johnny Ukulele?" He replied, "Oh yeah! I knew all those guys back then! I played with him in Chicago!" Wow! It was so great, to finally speak with someone else who knew Johnny Ukulele, a dear, dear friend of my mother's. Uncle continued, "Say, Johnny Ukulele was a really great player." I then asked him, "Well, did you know Mary Kaye of the Mary Kaye Trio, as well?" Bill very enthusiastically replied, "Oh yeah! After I finished my gig in Vegas every night, I would rush over to the place where she was playing! She was my favorite act!" However, I wasn't sure he knew the connection between Johnny Ukulele and Mary Kaye, so, I then asked, "Uncle, you know that Mary Kaye was Johnny Ukulele's daughter, yeah?", and he got this look in his eye. He just looked straight forward and stared. He was in deep thought. Then all of a sudden, he turned his head towards me and said, very emphatically, "NO! I knew her when she was a little girl! Well, I'll be damned." I smiled hugely!
We who live in Southern California had the great privilege to learn from him, listen to him and simply hang out with Bill Tapia. He was an accessible legend! He loved people and....we all loved him back.