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The ukulele community has learned that Bill Tapia passed peacefully away on December 2, 2011 aged 103 years. His incredible professional career spanned over ninety years. At ten years old he was already playing "Stars and Stripes Forever" on his ukulele at USO shows for the World War I troops. Amazingly, he'd learned the song directly from the composer, after hearing it played by John Philip Sousa's own band. By age twelve he was playing in Vaudeville. He later moved on to play guitar as a jazz sideman. He had some notable highlights too, including occasions when he got to accompany Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. It's even said that he was the one to introduce legendary broadcaster Arthur Godfrey to the ukulele.
Towards the end of his life the remarkable centenarian was touring again, performing live shows, recording CDs and signing them for countless fans of all ages. He is said to have been the oldest unionized performing musician ever.
Words like "remarkable", "amazing" and "incredible" come easily to mind when thinking about Bill Tapia. Such superlatives arise from a rare combination: his spritely old age plus his renowned talent as an entertainer. In a world where great music is often associated with youth cut short in its prime it can feel both surreal and slightly overwhelming to contemplate the human scale of time that was traveled by Mr Tapia and his uke.
As for me, I already feel old! I seem to bruise more easily now and my joints don't bend with the flexibility that they did in my younger days, when they said I was the spitting image of Michelangelo's "David" (well, one person said it anyway.) I've also had my share of root canals, strained ligaments and grey hairs. My eye-sight is very good but it's clear to see that it's not everything it was. I'm not complaining but here's what gets me: to reach Bill Tapia's final resting age I will have to live my whole life again and then several years on top of that. And quite frankly I find it very hard to imagine.
To gain some perspective on the length of his career, consider this: when Bill Tapia was a little boy there were no cars, radios or refrigerators. Or if there were he wasn't aware of them. As a young Hawaiian boy in 1915 he bought his first uke from Manuel Nunes, inventor of the ukulele, for 75 cents. And was already strumming ukulele chords when the instrument was just being introduced to the United States mainland. The roaring twenties hadn't even started.
We now think of "hapa haole" that is, "part-white" Hawaiian songs, like Ukulele Lady, My Little Grass Shack and Sweet Leilani as being substantially older than "Golden Oldies". They were popularized in the 1920's and '30s and now seem positively archaic to us. Bill Tapia was playing those songs when they first came out of the sound cones of wind-up gramophone players. And he was hearing and playing jazz right when jazz was invented. It's nothing short of astounding!
Shortly before Bill Tapia's 100th birthday he and I performed on the main stage at the Southern California Ukulele Festival in Cerritos, California. We'd both completed our sets and, as musicians often do, we were standing around at the back of the concert hall watching the rest of the show. Probably to be near our respective merchandise tables when the show ended.
A thought occurred to me that this was a unique opportunity to speak with Bill. Perhaps I could glean some secrets that might help me survive the rigours of musicianship for as long as he had done. I strolled on over and said, "I want to be doing this when I'm ninety-nine. Do you have any hints or advice to pass on?" He thought for a moment and then answered me in four words, "Just keep doing it."
I almost left it at that but felt to push the matter a little further. I said, "No, come on Bill, there's got to be more to it." He thought for a spell and said. "Well I always took pretty good care of myself. I didn't do drugs and I wasn't a drinker except for a social drink. I exercised by riding my bike every day until my doctor said I had to stop because of angina but even now I walk daily. The only bad thing I did was to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day until I was eighty-seven. I quit smoking because of the angina."
Here then, as far as I can surmise, are Bill Tapia's seven rules for a long and healthy musical life:
1) Have the good fortune to be born with long-life genes.
2) Be born into a time when everyone eats natural organic food and there are no unhealthy petroleum or corn derived products. Neither is there electromagnetic radiation from cell-towers, nuclear power stations, radio transmitters or X-rays. (There could still be the occasional World War or flu epidemic to survive but hopefully, with luck and some help from No. 1 you'll sail through all those.)
3) Exercise daily.
4) Don't do drugs and only drink alcohol in moderation.
5) If you smoke heavily it's a good idea to quit, at least by the time you're in your late eighties.
6) Play ukulele and sing.
7) Just keep doing it.
New Book Coming VERY soon!: The Ukulele Entertainer - Powerful Pointers for Players and Performers
Essential Strums for the Ukulele. Learn ukulele in the following styles: Samba, Bossa Nova, Bo-diddley, Reggae, Blues, Swing, Syncopation, Frailing - clawhammer and Waltz. Available from: www.RalphShaw.ca