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Corona del Mar Today: Hundreds remember ukulele player Bill Tapia at OASIS memorial party

January 21, 2012|By Amy Senk
  • The Bamboo Room band performs at the OASIS Senior Center in a concert to remember famed ukulele player BIll Tapia. At center stage was Tapia’s signature red ukulele.
The Bamboo Room band performs at the OASIS Senior Center… (Courtesy Amy Senk )

About 250 people gathered at the OASIS Senior Center last week to remember famed ukulele player Bill Tapia in a celebration of his life that had originally been planned as his 104th birthday party.

"This is his kind of party," said John McDonald of San Clemente, who took lessons and played with Tapia. "He was always the first one to start playing at a party, and the last to stop. He just loved to sit down and jam with people."

Tapia died in his Westminster home on Dec. 2. Born on Jan. 1, 1908, in Honolulu, he received his first ukulele at age 7 and began his career three years later, entertaining World War I troops at USO shows. He once gave ukulele lessons to Clark Gable and Shirley Temple and played with Elvis Presley, as well as played backup for musicians including Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. He was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2004.

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For the past five years, he played with the OASIS center's ukulele strummers group, which meets on Mondays at the center at Fifth and Marguerite avenues.

"He always got a great reception when he'd arrive," said Isabel Jack of Irvine, who has played with the OASIS group for about three years. "Everyone would cheer and clap when he arrived. He seemed to love us all."

Neighbors, caregivers, professional musicians and amateur strummers crowded the Evelyn Hart Event Center for the four-hour party, which featured the Bamboo Room band from San Onofre playing songs by Patsy Cline as well as jazz standards and Hawaiian and French songs. Many attendees brought their ukuleles and played along, and singers and hula dancers performed. At center stage was Tapia's signature red ukulele, draped in leis, also red — his signature color.

"My son was Bill's student for seven years," said Keith Miller of Capistrano Beach. "He'd yell at him: 'Boy! How long you practice last week?'" Miller said. "'Not long enough!' Bill was 93 when I met him, and when he was 100 he said, 'I don't know if I can teach him anything more.' But he taught my son more than music. He taught him about being a good person."

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