A night of Hawaiian music and dance

A piece of Hawaiian history will come to the Rogue Valley when St. Clair Productions presents 101-year-old ukulele master Bill Tapia in concert. Tapia will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland. 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.

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. He left school at 12 to work in the Honolulu vaudeville circuit to help support his family.

At 15, Tapia gave up the ukulele for the banjo and played in bands on cruise ships. At 19, he took up the guitar and played that instrument for the next 50 years. 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 bandleader 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.

In 2001, after his wife of 64 years and his 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 deejay, Alyssa Archambault, who convinced him to start performing on the ukulele again. "And, so, Tapia's ukulele career was resurrected. This time, he brought a unique blend of jazz techniques to the ukulele. And a lifetime of charm. And history. "¦ Soon, he was getting standing ovations, Playing back at the Royal Hawaiian. Sitting in with Don Ho. Recording CDs. Performing before 25,000 people at a festival in Honolulu," the Orange County Register wrote.

Tapia was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2004. He released his first-ever 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.

"Folks love him and with good reason. Not only is Tapia, at the age of 100, a living link to the Hawaiian music of a century ago, but he is also a virtuoso musician and a thoroughly engaging entertainer on stage. If nothing else, the chances are slim to none you'll find another entertainer anywhere in the world who can introduce a song as 'something I learned during World War I,' " wrote the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

"It's a fact of life that when an entertainer reaches a certain age, there's a sense that they may not be around for much longer. There are also entertainers who continue on until they reach the point of being a novelty act, where loyal fans hope and pray their heroes can get through their show without forgetting where they are.

"But that's not Tapia, no how, no way! For him, being 100 is maybe the new 50, in terms of playing music and entertaining a crowd."

Tapia will be offering a ukulele workshop at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at the Headwaters building, across the street from the Unitarian Center. Cost is $25. Call 535-3562 to register.

Tickets to the concert are $20 in advance, $22 at the door and $10 for youths 12-17. Children under 12 admitted free. Tickets are available at the Music Coop in Ashland, online at stclairevents.com or by calling 535-3562.

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