One of the exciting memories of Greek music lovers is that of Grigoris Bithikotsis’ (Γρηγορης Μπιθικωτσης 1922-2005) last public Zeibekiko at the end of a big tribute concert for his 80th birthday which took place in the “Peace and Friendship Stadium” of Piraeus in March 2002 with leading Greek musicians. I am still moved by those moments, and it was my first story of this blog five years ago. I felt that Zorba’s motto, “to love life and not to fear death”, was encapsulated in that Bithikotsis’ dance, along with the Greek spirit.
His own interpretive school
Bithikotsis can be considered as one founder of modern popular singing. The other is Stelios Kazantzidis (Στέλιος Καζαντζίδης); each of them had his own different way of interpretation that would influence singers in the years to come. “If the song was a river, one of its banks would be Kazantzidis and the other me”, he said once.
Both were singing, as all the others, about the burdens of the poor, about working class life and about women and love’s pain. Kazantzidis’ style is conjuring the pain from inside directly in front of the world, without barriers, “putting on the table” the crying and the despair of people.
In contrast to Kazantzidis, Bithikotsis brings optimism in the music, so much needed in hard times for the nation; one writer observes “an epic voice that does not make you want to cry, but makes you feel proud and strong”.
The unofficial title “Sir” accompanies Bithikotsis for many years, signaling his place in Greek music. It began when during a concert the journalist Dimitris Psathas turned to Bithikotsis’ wife Theokleia, saying: “Mrs. Bithikotsi, the way your husband sings, but also your care with all those well-pressed suits, the polished shoes, the white handkerchief on the lapel and the well-tightened tie bring me to give him the title of Sir Bithi!”. He wrote it in his newspaper after the 1972 song “A Deep Bow, a Hand Kissing”. But the “Sir” did not appear out of the blue. It was his noble, authoritarian, intelligent singing that appealed to all parts of society as well as the assertive way he managed his career in the music industry.
Early life and the first song
Grigoris Bithikotsis was born in 1922 in Peristeri (a municipality of greater Athens), as the 6th and the last child of a very poor family that had migrated there from a village a short time before. His parents found a job in the gardens.
“I figured out that there were poor people and that we were not all the same by the time I went to school. Seven to ten children didn’t have shoes. I remember that I was giving them mine and then I was telling my father that others stole them. But because there were only forty houses there and we all knew each other I couldn’t hide it for long.”
“My big brother brought a guitar home when I was six and I was taking it secretly and learned how to play by myself. When my brother once caught me out, he asked me to play something for him and after listening to me he gave it to me as present… I felt that I had something in me… When I was playing my guitar I caught the interest of the children of my neighborhood.”
“I only studied in high school. I didn’t like so much to read so I conceded to what my parents wanted, which was to earn a living by having a skill of something. So I became a plumber. I did this job for 16 years…”
When he was 15 he was charmed by the songs of Markos Vamvakaris, the “Socrates” of Greek music, as he put it: “I do not know, something struck inside me, another touch, another melody… another thing. Hearing Vamvakaris changed everything in me.” He thought: “One day I will write such songs!”. During the occupation he was working as a plumber in the mornings and in the evenings at taverns as a guitar and bouzouki player. Getting his hands clean from his day’s work was not an easy job…
At only 8 years old (1930) the police already tried to glean information from him about political discussion in his close environment.”One day in 1947, military people found me writing slogans on the walls but they didn’t put me in jail… they sent me to spend my military service at Makronisos Island. What bothered me most there was the fact that educated people were beaten by uneducated people and the worst was that they didn’t know the reason why they were beating them. There they wanted me to make an orchestra to entertain the officers…” He broke his bouzouki to avoid playing in front of Queen Frideriki when she was visiting the place, but she ordered to buy a new one. “The same day they brought me my new bouzouki, they also brought Mikis Theodorakis in the room.”
“They put him in a bed next to mine because they had broken his leg. He told me that he was studying music and all the time he was holding a book. There in the island I wrote my first song”. The music of “The Candle Flickers” (Το καντήλι τρεμοσβήνει) was in Vamvakaris’ style. When it was released (1949) he got an audition in the record company and to his joy his admired Vamvakaris took part in the recording as a second voice to Soula Kalfopoulou (lyrics by Haralambos Vasileiadis).
(The following original versions may not be available in Germany)
“The Crazy Girl” (Τρελοκόριτσο)
After his first song Bithikotsis wrote a few songs for other singers, continuing his work at nightclubs as a musician. We are in 1955. “At that time, I worked in the ‘Jungle’ club. Our vocalist, Giannis Papadopoulos, was madly in love with the singer Poly Panou! So Giannis wrote a song for her, the words for “Crazy Girl”. “Can you write music for it?” he asked me. I took the words and began to compose. The boss of the place, Karlis, who made chickpeas at night, heard me singing while composing and ordered me, “you will sing the song tonight!” “Are you crazy?” I said. “Do what I tell you!” he commanded.
I sang “Crazy Girl” and the audience went crazy! Poly was picking requests, twenty orders for “Crazy Girl”, two for other songs… Killing! Zeibekiko after zeibekiko…”
And it was an order from another boss that had sent Grigoris Bithikotsis to the recording studio. A few days later Bithikotsis went to Miliopoulos, the legendary manager of “Columbia” records and told him about the song. “He didn’t answer but he sent that night one of his secretaries to the club; listening to the song the girl got mad!” The next day Miliopoulos called him to the studio. But there Grigoris saw the famous Tsitsanis, Papaioannou and Chiotis. “I can’t sing with these three in front of me. I get nervous.” “Stop the bullshit and get in the studio and sing!”… Milolpoulos reacted. So I became a singer.”
The “Crazy girl” or the “Crazy broad” as our friend Kat prefers, won over hearts; anyone could be transported to a moment of anger while listening to these words and music.
You were born for destruction
And you came to demolish an entire life
You didn’t think twice what you are going to do
You stuck a knife in me, crazy girl, you will be my end
(At the end of the post there are alternative versions with English caps)
Pale Moon (Φεγγάρι χλωμό – 1959)
A great hit in the popular style of the late 1950s; it was written for the popular singer Manolis Angelopoulos (Μανώλης Αγγελόπουλος) who in those years worked together with Bithikotsis in a nightclub. In this version Angelopoulos sings 2 verses with Giorgos Dalaras. (lyrics: Dimitris Gkoutis , English subtitles)
The”Theodorakis years” (1960-1967)
Bithikotsis own “Laika” (popular) songs in the first 15 years were “popular folk”; they were closely related to the rebetika and nightclubs’ singing. In the beginning of the sixties, as he was already a very popular singer, he was taking a major part in reviving the rebetika to the front of the stage again, especially Markos Vamvakaris, who had been forgotten during the fifties, falling into poverty.*
But the sixties were ready to reveal another side of Bithikotsis and it came at the hand of Mikis Theodorakis, his Makronisos roommate. Theodorakis realized that the voice of Bithikotsis, steady and tall like a “well planted tree” and not too sentimental, is perfectly suited for his project of composing music to poems by the greatest poets of Greece. We should especially note Odysseas Elytis’ “Aksion Esti”, an oratorio showing the history of Greece during World War II and the Civil War through the poet’s eyes. It is a praise song of man, his indomitable spirit and his desire for freedom which was delivered magnificently by Bithikotsis. And so “the child of rebetiko, purebred, becomes the great performer, the epic singer of the ’60s.”
His career was now in its peak. He was collaborating with almost every composer and songwriter, among them Sravros Ksarhakos (Σταύρος Ξαρχάκος) and Akis Panou (Άκης Πάνου). In this period he reaches a broader audience who comes to the nightclubs to hear the new songs.”Thanks to Mikis we opened our wings and your voice, father, traveled like a nightingale over the skies of the Greek music. He made our fate special,” wrote his daughter Anna.
We will dedicate one of our future posts to Bithikotsis and Theodorakis, but in order not to leave a blank in our story and for those who like to feel Bithikotsis’ voice and singing in those years, here is a song from the beginning of their collaboration, “My Mother (My Love) and Holy Mary” (Μάνα μου και Παναγιά-1960); only one year after “Pale Moon” and what a change!
Resuming writing songs
In this period he almost stopped writing songs, recording only two of his own. One of them is “The Mangas of Votanikos” (Του Βοτανικού ο μάγκας 1963), his last dance in our opening video.
In 1967 the dictatorship of the Hounta took power. Theodorakis was banned. Bithikotsis returns to write, now more delicate songs, more serenade-style and less “folk” zeibekikos than in his first period. Maybe his involvement with the “Art-Laika” (the art popular song) of Theodorakis and others, and change of fashion and audience, influenced his music. From the beginning of this period we will have “A Woman Leaves” (Μια γυναίκα φεύγει-1969, lyrics by Eleni Laikou)
A woman leaves, a true lady
Her steps erase a painful story
It is cold and the rain has frozen on the roof
A woman leaves, a woman leaves
Three modern videos with English subtitles:
“Crazy Girl” Dimitris Basis sings, the actress Hristina Alexanian dances zeibekiko and plates get broken…
The video of “A Woman Leaves” excites me again and again. Voula Gkika, who had been Bithikotsis’ second voice for many years, sings in a TV show, almost coming to tears…
And a bonus song that I love very much “Doubts” (Αμφιβολίες-1968), to which he had written the lyrics too. Here is by Georgia Lardou (English caps)
Second part of this post
Bithikotsis’ last Zeibekiko
*The revival of Vamvakaris
We also used some parts of the singer’s daughter Anna Bithikotsi’s book “From My Diery… Grigoris Bithikotsis 1922-2005” . Άννα Μπιθικώτση “Από το Ημερολόγιό μου … – Γρηγόρης Μπιθικώτσης 1922-2005”
Many thanks to Anastasia Thanela and Katerina Siapanda!