Aristocrat and working-class hero

Greek music legend Grigoris Bithikotsis, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 82 and was given a state funeral yesterday that drew thousands, ranks as one of the country’s most distinctive and popular musical figures. Renowned primarily for his singing, he was also an accomplished and prolific songwriter. Bithikotsis, withered in more recent times, had battled various health problems while hospitalized in Athens over the past three months, before finally succumbing late last week. His vocal range and its characteristic sound made him a leading choice as singer for a considerable number of works by world-renowned composer Mikis Theodorakis. During the 1950s, when Bithikotsis emerged artistically, he became one of the two favorite singers for the war-ravaged country’s masses. His singing carried pride, whereas that era’s other singing legend, the late Stelios Kazantzidis, was associated with hardship and complaint. «Bithikotsis’s voice is the embodiment of all the people’s voices,» Theodorakis had said in support of the artist back in 1961, responding to elitist protests about the master composer’s decision to opt for Bithikotsis as his singer for «Epitafios,» a landmark work based on poetry by Yiannis Ritsos. In choosing Bithikotsis, a man of humble roots renowned for his laika [popular Greek songs], the highbrow critics claimed that Theodorakis had fallen short of respect for Ritsos the poet. Regardless of all this, Bithikotsis stood as a proud hybrid of both high and low culture. He had an affinity for seemingly all before him, and vice versa. His crossover appeal attracted all from Greece’s upper classes to the down-and-out. Bithikotsis helped doubting domestic elitists discover and appreciate the fine qualities inherent in laiko, a progression of the coarser rebetiko; the international jetset, including Alain Delon and Aristotle Onassis, were also among the converts. «Whenever young or old fans run into me, they call me ‘Captain.’ They never say ‘Hello Mr Bithikotsis.’ Instead it’s ‘Hello Captain.’ I always liked that, as well as the love of the people and respect when they spoke to me,» Bithikotsis is quoted in his biography, written by Panos Geramanis, a veteran music journalist and radio producer specializing in old-school Greek music. Highlighting his ability to communicate with the masses, Bithikotsis was an immensely popular, approachable, and giving neighbor in Halandri, northern Athens, where he resided. Bithikotsis was born on December 11, 1922 in a poor Athenian neighborhood. «I was the youngest child of an eight-member family headed by Ioannis and Tassia Bithikotsis… a poor family. My parents battled to get by and raise us amid difficult years. My brothers left during the war’s storm, in 1940, for the Albanian front. Taken by the sound of guitar and bouzouki, I began to get involved with music. By the age of 10, I was listening to the songs of Markos Vamvakaris [a prolific member of the still-notorious rebetika world]. They not only made an impression on me, but stirred up my inner world. They truly overwhelmed me,» he once observed. Captivated by the bouzouki, the young Bithikotsis became determined to acquire his own. «But I had a problem – what would my parents think? And I wasn’t wrong, either,» noted Bithikotsis. There was turmoil that day at the family home in Peristeri, regardless of efforts made by neighbors. «Your son is making this neighborhood proud,» they insisted in telling the youngster’s concerned parents. The paternal resistance, however, did not break. Ultimately, the aspiring young artist needed to hide his bouzouki in a neighbor’s house, where he practiced secretly, and, two months later, had developed into a fluent instrumentalist. Among the huge crowds at yesterday’s funeral service, which included friends, colleagues, fans and politicians, was Alternate Culture Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia, George Papandreou, the leader of the main opposition PASOK party, Stratis Korakas of KKE, the Greek Communist party, as well as Alekos Alavanos, leader of the Synaspismos Left Coalition party. A banner prepared by the Friends of Stelios Kazantzidis Society in Southern Evia read: «Grigoris, you live on with Stelios.» In comments made to Kathimerini ahead of yesterday’s funeral service, some of the country’s more popular younger performers paid tribute to Bithikotsis and his legacy. Yiannis Kotsiras, whom Bithikotsis had praised after seeing him perform at a tribute show for the veteran legend, recalled: «He was an aristocratic man, and, at the same time, a very simple person. I’ll never forget his generosity. He quickly spoke his mind and was not affected by any form of insecurity whatsoever.» Kotsiras added: «He was my teacher, a model example at all levels. For me, he was the ultimate Greek singer…» Dimitris Bassis, another of the new generation’s more respected singers, who noted that he was fortunate enough to meet Bithikotsis, described him as a man satisfied with life, adding that «he kind of distanced himself from all the noise surrounding his fame.»

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