The amazing story of Giorgos Katsaros

The fascinating story of Greek musician Giorgos Katsaros.

Among the truly awe-inspiring pieces of the triple compilation of Tompkins Square “To What Strange Place: Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929” that are a part of the history of the US music (and that for long time were solely the concern of certain minorities or collectors, but lastly more and more people around the globe appreciate them) there is this song of Giorgos Katsaros “Vre, ti magas pou’mai ego”. The song stands out of the traditional –dimotika, amanes and rebetiko- choices of the first CD mostly due to one reason: the playing of the guitar is unique, creating an entirely personal style –that made him popular among Greek immigrants during the 20’s (he was a professional instrumentalist in orchestras), making it sound unbelievably muted and whiny, sounding more like the music of Django Reinhardt than a bouzouki.
There is a number of videos on Youtube with Katsaros’ music (not to be confused with the eponymous saxophone player) from records and live performances, some just before he passed away at the age of 109 (!). Classic, historical, great songs but none matching the magic of “Vre…” After looking for more info about his life and work I stumbled upon a very detailed account of his life that starts in 1888 in Greek island Amorgos, full of fascinating stories and wondrous details that make it seem like a novel.
The story goes like this:
Giorgos Katsaros-Theologitis was the second child of a wealthy family in Amorgos that when at five lost his father (on an accident) and grew up together with his mother and grandfather. It was because of his grandfather that the young boy received his first impressions on the songs of the Greek islands (“Nisiotika”). From a very early age he begins teaching himself the guitar.

During the first years of the 1900’s his mother took him and his sister and moved to Athens, where in order to support her family she worked as a cook in houses of wealthy families. In 1905 and with her fame as a cook having reached the circles of the celebrities of the times, she is hired by the domestic staff of the king Konstantinos as a cook. For approximately ten years Giorgos Katsaros listens to and marvels at the military bands and learns to play and sing the military marches and the songs of the era.

In 1910 he begins performing as a guitarist and wandering singer of light and satirical music at various entertainment spaces in Kastela, Faliro and in joints in Athens and Piraeus. His uncle was working for the police directory of Piraeus and the young Katsaros paid him often visits, where he got a good taste of the port and its subculture. He came in contact with a rebetiko musicians from which he was influenced and whose songs later on recorded in the US.  

On December 1913, together with his uncle and his guitar, he leaves  Greece to settle to New York. During his first three years of stay in the US he took up various random jobs, he perfected his style in the guitar and became member of the Salvation Army (charity organization that collected money for the poor, mostly by donating the proceeds of various concerts from their band). Soon he becomes accepted in the circle of the Greek artists of the time that he looks up to (like Kostas and Maria Papagika, Amalia Vaka, Mrs. Koula Vlachou and others) who had already begun their career in NY and they had become popular in the Greek community.

By 1917 he has made it to a full time professional musician, solo or accompanied with well known names of the Greek community, playing mostly traditional rebetiko songs, tweaked and adapted properly as well as light, satirical or “dimotika” songs in Greek joints of the West Coast (New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston)

His idiosyncratic voice, nostalgic at times and harsh at others, is gradually leaving its mark on the scene. The characteristics that inadvertently marked his career were: the plucking style on the guitar but also his original, fine voice. It was told that he was a passionate and expressive singer, and he characteristically swung his chin from the left to the right.

Just two years after his break in to the US he signs his first contract with remarkably favorable terms with the great record label R.C.A. VICTOR (among the two leading ones in their field together with COLUMBIA) for the production of six records per year, 500$ per song and duration of contract 5 years with the option of renewal.

In the same year, 1919, he makes his debut in discography as a singer with the traditional rebetiko songs “Elliniki apolafsis (Ante san pethano tit ha poune)” and “Elli (a, kakourga Elli)” that become great hits of the time.

The period between ’23 and ’25 is marked by the great love of his life, with the great Mexican dancer Rita Rio. This affair brings him closet to the people and the circle of Hollywood, he becomes acquainted with various personalities in the business of entertainment and he becomes the leading actor in two silent films. He meets and becomes a friend of many stars of the time like Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin, Rodolfo Valentino, Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and others, who are frequenting in the spots he performs, and rumor has it that even president Roosevelt himself had invited him to the White House in 1942.   

In his solos, Katsaros was playing the guitar in his own idiosyncratic style. While playing the melodic line with the upper strings he was using the lower register strings in a style reminiscent of the byzantine isokratema or the baroque basso continuo.
 In 1930 and while working at a place in San Francisco he becomes part of a group, one member of which had his eyes fixed on Katsaros’ fingers for the duration of his playing the guitar. When the show ended he was invited to his table and he was introduced to him in the name of Andreas Segovia (renovator of the classical guitar, who was the first to introduce it to a symphonic orchestra and transformed it from and backing to a solo instrument. Composer, creator and perhaps the greatest virtuoso of classical guitar ever until today. Katsaros was speechless. But equally speechless was Segovia from Katsaros’ playing. Both being modest and heartly people (characteristics all great musicians share), they became close friends and they remained so throughout their entire life. Katsaros always had first class tickets for all of Segovia’s shows.       

From the beginnings of 1914 until June 22 1997 that he passed away, Giorgos Katsaros lived and acted artistically mostly in the US, he did make however various extended travels to North and South America, Europe, India, South Africa, And Australia and so he became quite popular in all the Greeks of the diaspora, and all the aficionados of Greek traditional music.

During the span of his contract with R.C.A. VICTOR he released some of the prettiest traditional rebetiko songs. Many of these in uniquely performed, like “Vre ti magas poy’mai ego”. “Erhomai ton toiho, toiho”, “I taverna kai to zari”, “Kai giati den mas to les”, “Mas tin skasane (To Mpohori)”, “Neoi geroi psithyrizoun (I barbounara)”, “O giatros”, “Paizo poka paizo pinokli”, “Pote mavra, pote aspra”, “Tora ta pairno”, “Fonias tha gino”,”Chtes to vrady stou Karipi”, etc. Eventhough his setlist was consisted of hundreds (maybe thousands) of songs, in fact it wasn’t more than 100 songs that made into the discography of the times in two periods 1919-38, 1945-55.

The only profession that he ever took up in his entire life was that of a musician.

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