Sunday, October 12, 2008

“The Duke of Uke”

& if you should survive to a 105,
Think of all you’ll derive just from being alive;

& here is the best part—you’ll have a head start

If you are among the very young at heart.

Young at Heart, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, music by Johnny Richards

Folks sometimes talk about how the uke can be a great instrument for senior citizens, because the instrument’s size & relatively easy playability don’t require as much dexterity or hand strength as a guitar or banjo (or a number of other instruments). However this post is about a guy who proves that so thoroughly he can outplay most folks a quarter or even a fifth his age —yes, a fifth or a quarter, not half or a third. The fellow is Bill Tapia, the “Duke of Uke.” Mr Tapia turned a cool 100 earlier this year, & is still a ukulele player of the highest order & a regular professional performer.

While I let your mind try to encompass this, you can po
nder the fact that Tapia’s professional music career spans close to 90 years. He began playing on the Oahu streets for tips as a boy, & started performing in Hawaiian vaudeville at 12. At 16 he joined a professional dance band that left the islands to tour stateside. Tapia continued this career, at first doubling on uke & guitar, then later switching to guitar exclusively as the uke fell out of favor in the big bands. He played as a sideman, in TV orchestras, in various professional bands, taught guitar, & kept up the uke just as something he’d play at home for his family.

Then several years back, Mr Tapia lost both his daughter, Cleo (then aged 60), & his wife Barbie (they’d been married for 64 years). He was devastated, & couldn’t seem to break free from depression. As chance would have it, he walked into a
music store in California, ostensibly to see about getting his guitar repaired, & began playing a uke. In short order he’d pretty much blown the minds of everyone in the shop.

This led to a new career at the age of 94. He began playing in clubs, in restaurants, in Hawaiian jam sessions. He even struck up acquaintances with older musicians who’d known about him during his first career & who now assumed he was dead. He found a friend & manager in 27-year old Alyssa Archambault, & has gone on to record two excellent cd’s—Tropical Swing & The Duke of Uke. He performs with other legendary ukers s
uch as Lyle Ritz (sadly, legendary ukers are about as recognized in the culture at large as “renowned poets”). There’s also a documentary about him, the 2006 To You, Sweetheart, Aloha (referring to a song he often played for his wife & daughter); & Mr Tapia was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame at age 96 (if anybody deserves to be referred to as “Mr” it’s a 100-year old guy who’s still a professional musician).
It’s true that Mr Tapia’s no longer a great singer, though there’s a lot of warmth & humor in his voice, & he’s pleasant to listen to—& geez, the guy was 96 was he made Tropical Swing! His chops on the ukulele are still first-rate, however (he plays a tenor, & I believe he typically uses the low g tuning). Tapia has a marvelous sense of melody & phrasing, & like his singing, his playing projects both warmth & humor (& unlike his vocals there’s absolutely nothing to explain away or apologize for when he’s playing the uke). He mixes old jazz standards (great versions of “Mack the Knife” & “Mood Indigo,” & one of the whackiest versions of “Misty” ever recorded, with uke & trumpet trading phrases) with Hawaiian tunes such as “Manuela Boy,” “My Little Grass Shack,” & “My Honolulu Hula Girl.” His back-up band is top-notch, & they give him great support—Tapia’s the show, & they give him a solid foundation to ride on. The band typically consists of guitar & upright bass, but on Tropical Swing a Hawaiian steel guitar is also added.

My recommendation: get both cd’s! If you want to start with just one, I guess I’d give the nod by just a whisker to Tropical Swing, though there are some fantastic moments on The Duke of Uke—a lovely version of “Black Orpheus,” a couple of charming takes on “My Little Grass Shack” (a studio take & a live take, the latter with the great Lyle Ritz doubling on uke in a lower tuning & Fred Sokolow on dobro). Both cd’s also have some vintage takes from the 30’s, & all those old takes feature spectacular uke solos. Tapia’s
1936 medley of “Sweethearts on Parade/Stars & Stripes Forever” on Tropical Swing is not to be missed…. he’s absolutely burning the fretboard up. These were back in the days when he played with lightning speed & did stunts like playing the uke behind his head (see pic below); further proof—along with Roy Smeck—that the rockers didn’t start those types of shenanigans.

If you have any interest in uke music, old jazz, or Hawaiian music, or if you’d just like to be wowed by someone who continues to beat the odds & maintain his talent & passion at an advanced age, check out Bill Tapia. You can also read a couple of interesting articles about him here & here. At any rate, when you hear his uke playing & his singing, you’ll definitely get the idea of the old adage about “you’re as young as you feel.”

Young at Heart is © 1954 Cherio Corporation

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