Bill Tapia, a 101-year-old ukulele virtuoso, will perform in Ashland. - St. Clair Productions

Ukulele master Bill Tapia

The ukulele is not a novelty instrument. Just ask Bill Tapia. He's been playing the ukulele since he was 7 and that was 94 years ago.

St. Clair Productions will present the 101-year-old ukulele master in concert at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 25, 8 p.m., at the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland. The stop in Southern Oregon is part of an extensive tour that has Tapia playing in a different city almost every day.

Accompanying Tapia will be bassist Bruce Calin. Opening the show will be Ashland's hula troupe Ka Pi'o O Ke Anuenue under the direction of Andrea Luchese.

"The uke is a real fabulous instrument," Tapia said. "You can do anything you can do on a guitar or piano." Like playing jazz, which is what Tapia enjoys doing. "In my young days I listened to Louis Amstrong, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians and Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra and imitated them on the uke."

Tapia bought his first ukulele at age 8 from Manuel Nunes, one of the first ukulele makers in Hawaii. Two years later, during World War I, he was playing for soldiers at the local Army-Navy YMCA.

"They took me out of school at 121/2; and put me in vaudeville," Tapia said of his days helping to support his family.

At 16, Tapia gave up the ukulele for the banjo and played in bands on cruise ships. At 19, he took up the guitar.

"I didn't touch the ukulele for 56 years," Tapia said. "I gave all of my ukes away and concentrated on guitar."

Tapia and his wife moved to San Francisco where he played with Stan Kenton, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnett and Bing Crosby. He performed in several hotel house bands that would back the star performers.

Tapia performed at the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu in 1927 at age 19 and was the only original performer still alive to perform at the hotel's 75th anniversary. He performed at the hotel's 80th anniversary as well.

At the time of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel's opening, Tapia was a featured player in famed Hawaiian band leader and composer Johnny Noble's orchestra. He became one of the Royal Hawaiian's "musical drivers," who chauffeured wealthy hotel guests around the island, stopping to sing Hawaiian songs to their passengers with Diamond Head in the background.

In the 1920s and 30s, Tapia became a fixture on the Waikiki music scene. He gave lessons to celebrities such as Betty Grable, Jimmy Durante, and Buster Crabbe, and he hung out with Waikiki beach boys, such as Sam and Duke Kahanamoku. He was in demand as a guitar and ukulele player with top bands and had his own group, Tappy's Island Swingers.

Following World War II, Tapia settled on the mainland in San Francisco to pursue his jazz passion. Most gigs with the big bands required guitar playing, and this became his main professional instrument for over 50 years. Tapia played with swing bands, taught, did studio sessions and played in TV orchestras. He would play the ukulele at home for his wife.

When his wife became ill, Tapia gave up music to care for her. In 2001 she and Tapia's only daughter died within a short time of each other. Tapia moved to Southern California to be near his grandchildren. There he met a public radio DJ Alyssa Archambault, who convinced him to start performing on the ukulele again.

"What am I going to do with my life?" Tapia recalled. "I can't sit around feeling sorry for myself." There were a lot of clubs that featured uke players. "All these people were getting crazy about the uke," Tapia said. "I better pick one up again."

He soon realized that he hadn't forgotten a thing on the instrument And, so, Tapia's ukulele career was resurrected.

Tapia's concerts feature mostly jazz pieces. But in deference to the islands, he generally plays and sings a couple of comical Hawaiian songs. Tapia plays instruments made especially for him. He always brings two, just in case he breaks a string while playing.

Tapia has a whole list of reasons to play the ukelele. It's a nice backup instrument for vocalists. It's a good solo instrument. It's easy on your fingers. It can play four octaves, just like the guitar. You can take it in your car when you're on the road and if you have nothing to do, you can pick it up and play.

"It's a relaxing instrument," Tapia said. "It's really good for the soul. You feel sad or you get something on your mind. You pick up your uke and you forget all your troubles."

Tapia was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2004. He released his first solo CDs, "Tropical Swing" in 2004 and "Duke of Uke" in 2005. Both recordings reached the top 10 on the CMJ jazz charts. He has been performing sellout shows all over the West Coast and Hawaii and teaching more than 20 students at home. In 2006, a documentary "To You Sweetheart, Aloha" was made about his life.

"I want to do this while I still can," Tapia said. "I like to make people happy. This is all I did all my life."

Tapia will offer a ukulele workshop at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at the Headwaters Building, across the street from the Unitarian Center. The cost is $25. Call 535-3562 to register.

Concert tickets are $20 in advance, $22 at the door and $10 for ages 12-17. Children under 12 will be admitted free. Tickets are available at the Music Coop, Ashland, on-line at stclairevents.com or call 535-3562.

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