Three inspirational encounters with Georgos Zambetas

I can tell you about the exact moment in which I fell in love with Greek Music. It was in the beginning of 2003. My wife had already been collecting discs of Greek Music, and I was listening to them in my car, along with other genres, and liked them very much. But then I heard for the first time Eleftheria Arvanitaki singing “Stalia Stalia” (Drop by Drop)…

“Stalia stalia ki ahortga ta pino ta filia sou…”  I did not understand a word back then, but the heart widened with a sense of happiness… very close to the feeling of falling in love. From that moment Greek music became my music (and I became a fan of Eleftheria Arvanitaki).

The way of this song begun in an autumn day of 1967. A strange noise came out the engine of a London taxi and reached the ears of a traveling musician, Georgos Zambetas; he took out the bouzouki that was with him and accompanied the noise; a song was born, and Zambetas burst into laughter…

Here is the song:

Our friend Nata suggested that we have a post on this notable artist. There are a lot of stories in his rich and full life; we’ll tell just few.

A short biography

Georgos Zambetas was born in 1925 at Metaxourgio, a district of Athens. He had six siblings. His father had a barbershop, in which music was usually being played, with a mandolin, a guitar, and a bouzouki. They were poor but on Saturday all the family went to an outdoor coffee shop or to friends to have a drink and enjoy some music… and on Saturday nights young Georgos used to hear the lads who were singing serenades under the girls’ windows…  So Georgos lived the music and was attracted to it from early childhood, perceived sounds from his environment and music that sounded out of nearby taverns. When Georgos was 7 he was already playing the bouzouki very well.

Zambetas created his first songs in the 1950s but the peak of his career was in the 1960s and beginning of the 70s, when he established himself as a virtuoso with the bouzouki. As a composer of beautiful music, he “combined the tenderness of serenade (from Ionian islands) with the simplicity of expression of mainland Greece” (M. Plessas). He composed hundreds of songs, and many of them became hits. Georgos’ shomanship attracted audiences in clubs and he also took part in 100 movies.

In the 1970s audience tastes started to change. The 1980s mark a decline in the popularity of his style. In the beginning of the 1990s his music regained the interest of the public, but it was too late for him; he passed away in March 1992 after a long illness. His music is popular up to today.


“The bag”

His name was Halalambos Vasileidis (Χαράλαμπος Βασιλειάδης), and he could be seen in the 50s and the 60s in a café at Lonos street, where musicians, artists and producers would meet. He looked simple and humble and he was always carrying a bag. As he set down he would open his bag and offer lyrics of his to all who may have been interested. For this he earned the nickname “O Tsandas” – “The Bag”.

He was educated, spoke different languages and chiefly worked as a translator at the Naval Ministry. Later he would devote himself entirely to lyrics writing, neglecting his work. “The Bag” wrote easily, and could produce songs instantly on request, selling them for as little as a cigarette’s pack. Deft people easily took advantage of this and so, others were credited for an overwhelming majority of his lyrics. He returned at evening to his small and meagre home, continuing writing into the night. “The Bag” despised comfort, denying any economic help from his established family, or neglecting to claim his copyrights; humbleness fitted him best as a source for inspiration.

He loved Zambetas and Zambetas loved him. When he would find Zambetas sit moodily in the café, he would open his bag, give him lyrics and proclaim: “I don’t want to hear such things. Take these verses and make some beautiful songs!” “He was married to Mrs Anna,” writes Zambetas, “he did not have children of his own and considered me as his son.” He was satisfied with a third of the royalties off the songs they wrote together, instead of the 50% he deserved. “He was saying that the rest should go to his grandchildren, meaning my children.”

“The Bag” died in1970 at the age of 68 while Zambetas was in a tour in America. When he Zambetas returned, Anna told him that before his death “The Bag” opened his bag and gave her lyrics of a new song, for Zambetas, “Where are you Thanasis”. Full of emotion, Georgos read the lines and his eyes watered with tears…

Giannis Parios sings (Press on the red bottom on Youtube to get English subtitles on all the videos in this post)


The Femme Fatale


Georgos Zabetas was known for his generosity. It happened more than once in his career that he helped artists in the beginning of their career, and others whose careers were in crisis. The high school student and beginning singer Dimitris Mitropanos considered him as a father. He called Markos Vamvakaris to his show when Markos’ career was in a deadlock.

Beba Blanche (born 1944) was in the 1960s a young singer who also appeared in movies. Men couldn’t stay indifferent to her sexy appearance. “She wore lace dresses with no bra and satin lingerie; she excited men… triggering comments and the jealousy of women colleagues… Even car accidents were caused because she was driving a Pontiac in the city center.” She had at the time several stormy relations with men, some of them “K Men”. Her temperament was explosive. In one article she is called “The Greek Brigitte Bardot”.

Zambetas saw her singing in a club. “He was captivated not only by her sensual presence, but also by her mysterious, smooth voice,” a voice which had a kind of metallic, erotic color.  Zambetas composed 12 songs for an album, and along with the recording career they were singing together in a night club.

After some time Zambetas composed new songs for her and made her an offer to sing with him again in a nightclub. But here her poor decision-making came forth, which haunted her also in later years, being one of the reasons that prevented her career taking off. She was in her 20s, married, and her rich husband “didn’t let me to go and sing with him because he felt that the club was not of so high a level that I will be able to wear the expensive necklaces with pearls, which he gave me as presents from time to time”.

“Bebeka has a velvet voice and she is a great singer but has no brain,” Zambetas used to say about his friend. To give her a lesson and to try to get her to stand on her own two feet, he gave songs that were destined for her to another singer, Viky Moscholiou, for an album which gained much success.

Still, their friendship lasted. A while later he offered her what was to become her greatest hit “The Boat”, with lyrics by “The Bag”. Their relationship continued through the years until Zambetas’ death. “My beloved,” she calls him, “I always said to him the best words”.

Beba Blanche sings; a video with scenes from a movie of the period.


The poet

An online article exactly reflected my feelings regarding the relations between poets and popular music, in Greece and also in our countries. I feel that fifty years ago, or a little more, began a “golden age” between poets and songs which lasted several decades. Poems were part of daily entertainment. “Poems set to music; there were lyricists who wrote poetry, poets who wrote verses”. I share the feeling of the writer that in these days, even though there are still beautiful composed poems, poetry in general has gone somewhat by the wayside.

But we are still in the 1960s and Georgos Zambetas had an ambition that his popular music would be joined to lyrics of a well-established and esteemed poet.

So one day he went to meet the poet Dimitris Christodoulou (Δημήτρης Χριστοδούλου) at his home. Not without hesitation but quite decisive he went. The poet was reluctant at first and hinted that his poems could not be easily matched with popular music. Zambetas didn’t gave up, pleaded him to trust him, and as the meeting concluded he thanked the host for the coffee, bowed respectfully to the poet, and left happy; he felt that maybe something changed in the important poet’s mind.

After a few days they met again at the poet’s home. Zambetas took with him the bouzouki and began to play a beautiful “taksimi” (improvisations that are played before the main musical theme) and as he started singing and playing the main melody, “full of feeling and liveliness, the poet acknowledged his poem ‘Lost’… Surprised, he heard an original melody that he could never find to better clothe his verses.” Later Zambetas made the necessary finishing touches of the music; since that time he had won the poet’s confidence and became good friends and colleagues who produced wonderful songs.

Here is “Lost” (Hatike) sung by Panos Tzanetis

And another lively song of the two creators  “Your lips are closed door”, sung by Viky Moscholiou:


One more song…

There is a lot more to tell about the rich life and art of Georgos Zambetas, for example about his satirical songs, which is connected directly to his very personal way of performing them, a way that was challenging and debunking the “proper behavior” and “good education” of the urban elites. We will cover this in future posts.

I would like to bring one more of his important songs. “Malista kyrie” – “Yes sir”. It is a melancholic song about a man who lost his love. But as Katerina Siapanda comments “Zambetas used to perform this song in crowded bouzuki – clubs after all the people had had their drinks and the “kefi” was so high… So, everybody – and I mean everybody – would sing along, with big smiles on their faces, even though the lyrics are melancholic…usually playing with the words in a way that can be translated to Yes Siree…”

This song has many versions, and here is an impressive one modern and rocky by Vassilis Papakonstantinou.

This song has many versions, and here is an impressive one modern and rocky by Vasilis Papakonstantinou.(Lyrics by Alekos Kaiandas)

Thanks Nata Ostria for bringing so much material from Zambetas’ biography titled “Malista Kyrie”-“Yes Sir”, by Kostas Papaspilios. We will tell more stories in future posts.
About “The bag”:
About Beba Blanche:
About Dimitris Christodoulou
The song “Lost”-Hatike, as featured in a movie
Zambetas performing satirical song about the 50 years old man who is like 20 and women are queuing for him:
Thanks also to Katerina Siapanda and Shahaf  Ifhar.

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