Today marks the anniversary of the passing of George Katsaros (not to be confused with the eponymous saxophone player), the famous Greek musician who began his United States recording career more than 90 years ago.
Hailing from the island of Amorgos, Greece, Katsaros migrated to New York City in 1913 to pursue his childhood passion for the guitar — a passion instilled in him by his grandfather, one of the island’s noted “Nisiotika” (Greek island music) performers.
For three years Katsaros perfected his guitar style while taking on different random jobs, becoming a member of the Salvation Army and mostly donating with some of his concert proceeds.
Because he had already built his music portfolio, by 1917 he found work in the Greek enclaves of lower Manhattan, joining a local musical community that included established performers such as Kostas and Maria Papagika, Amalia Vaka, Mrs. Koula Vlachou and others.
Having sang and played guitar since age seven, Katsaros quickly rose to prominence upon debuting his song “Greek Delight (Ελληνική Απόλαυσις)” in 1919 with these opening lines:
Hey, when I die, what will they say?
Hey, a drunkard’s dead!
Hey, a pot-head, a night bird's died!
(translated freely from Greek; see video below)
Katsaros earned notoriety for various traits: Undying passion, extraordinary musical talent, modesty and whim, but he especially distinguished himself with his peculiar use of the Greek language — a testament to his long hiatus from the homeland.
He even went as far as to proudly declare himself the “patriarch” of rebetika — briefly defined as the genre of Greek urban music popular from the late 1800’s to the 1950’s.
Since his death on June 27, 1997, Greek communities worldwide have made heartfelt tributes in his memory.
Katsaros was born George Theologitis on December 22, 1888, according to a birth certificate that was later reissued, authenticated and translated, and which he eagerly let visitors photocopy.
His stage name “Katsaros” means “curly,” deriving from his bushy black hair, which later in life became white and was often tied with a hairnet.
The Greek centenarian’s story is almost completely based on his own oral narratives which, although illustrative, sometimes contradict each other and need verification for details; nonetheless, they all begin with Katsaros moving to Athens at age five after his father’s accidental death, as his mother was hired to cook in the royal palace.
Helping to support his family, Katsaros would perform at seaside taverns in Piraeus and Faliron to make extra money. Eventually, though, he convinced his emigrant uncle Dimitrios to nominate him as an immigrant to the U.S.
Between the two World Wars, Katsaros went on a sort of odyssey during which he claimed to have entertained diaspora Greek communities scattered all over the world — Canada, Chile, India, Myanmar (formerly Burma), South Africa and Egypt.
Likewise, the musician claimed to have donated some proceeds from his performances to building projects for Greek churches and schools, particularly in Australia, where he recalled touring twice in the 1920’s.
Over the course of his travels Katsaros rubbed elbows with numerous celebrities of the day ranging from Al Capone (whom he called “Alekos Kaponis”) to Andres Segovia, and from President Roosevelt to Riorita — the Mexican dancer with whom he allegedly appeared in two silent movies and almost married in the late 1920’s before she died of leukaemia.
By the outbreak of World War II, Katsaros had recorded roughly 50 Greek songs in the U.S., many of which have since been reissued in Greece.
In the post-war era Katsaros recorded sporadically — having been seemingly interrupted by Greek musicians’ visits and imported recordings — consequently, the majority of his claimed 120 songs remain lost.
Nonetheless, on gramophone records remains a significantly large collection of Katsaros songs ranging from heavy rebetika to light European-style popular music, some of which satirize American cultural norms (such as women wearing trousers) as well as Great Depression-era politics.
Curiously, Katsaros’ rebetika career both predated and outlasted that of Markos Vamvakaris (1905-1972) — the genre’s most distinguished early exponent — and rebetika also lead to the belated discovery of Katsaros’ music in his home country during the 1970’s.
During this time, veteran Greek musicians such as Vamvakaris were dying quickly, subsequently introducing rebetika fans to Katsaros’s antique style, preserved on a small selection of rare American records which collectors in Greece had managed to obtain and broadcast on pirate radio stations.
Back in the U.S., Katsaros ended his 40 years of traveling in 1958 by settling in Tarpon Springs, Florida — a seaside town he had visited in 1919 and fallen in love with for its community of expatriate Aegean islanders and physical resemblance to Greek island ports.
He continued to entertain the local community at weddings and festivals and in 1990 earned the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1990. It was also here where Athenian rebetika enthusiasts tracked down the old musician in 1987 and thus honored him with more distinctions.
During his highly-publicized return to Greece in 1988 (after more than 60 years away), Katsaros received the medals of the cities where he performed on the visit — Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki — and was honored again during his 107th birthday performance in December, 1995 at the Greek Ministry of Culture in Thessaloniki, where he had been invited to perform a concert for delegates to the inaugural meeting of the World Council of Greeks Abroad (SAE).
Katsaros began his rebetika performance singing verses about police maltreatment of a hashish-smoker, to which dignitaries in the audience responded with amuse (video below).
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