When Vassilis Tsitsanis passed away on January 18, 1984, on his 69th birthday, music historians and experts knew that there will never be another Tsitsanis and all popular Greek music from then on would derive from his legacy alone.
Tsitsanis’ compositions and bouzouki virtuosity have never been matched, and never will be, and when Greeks speak of “laiko tragoudi” (people’s song) the image of the great musician is the first one that comes to mind.
Born in Trikala on January 18, 1915 – exactly 69 years before his death – he was one of 14 children of Kostas Tsitsanis, a tsarouhi maker from Epirus. It was a hard time for Greece then, and only four of Kostas Tsitsanis’ children survived, three sons and one daughter.
Vassilis’ love for music appeared early enough when he started playing his father’s mandolin. His brother Christos was playing bouzouki. Soon, the two brothers would play music in their father’s coffee shop in Trikala that had the family name.
The loss of his father at the age of 11 was a catalyst for the life of Vassilis Tsitsanis. The mandolin of his beloved father and mentor was modified into a bouzouki by a local music instrument maker. The young Vassilis was enchanted by the sound of the instrument, despite the fact that in high school he learned to play the violin.
Tsitsanis wrote his first song at the age of 15. A few years later, he left his Trikala home to go to Athens and study law. It was late 1936.
In order to supplement his income in the capital, he played music in taverns. “Bizelia” tavern in the poor neighborhood of Kolonos became his first “home” in Athens. There he met singer Dimitris Perdikopoulos, who took the young musician to Columbia records.
There, Tsitsanis made his first record in 1937. “Arhontissa” is the most famous song he recorded at the time. Along with it, he wrote, “This is Why I Wander,” “For These Black Eyes” and many others that were sang by Stratos Pagioumtzis, Stellakis Perpiniadis and Markos Vamvakaris.
In 1938 Tsitsanis was conscripted in the Greek army as a telegraph and radio operator. Almost every night, he would jump the wire fence of the army camp and go to play bouzouki in taverns. He also used his 48-hour furloughs to record for Columbia.
Vassilis Tsitsanis and rebetika
During that period, the young musician was impressed by the rebetika songs coming from the Greeks of Asia Minor. He incorporated the style and the oriental rhythms in his music. However, rebetika were censored at the time, as dictator Ioannis Metaxas was in power and he was against music coming from the East. Rebetika was marginalized to the point of being forbidden, and that was something that attracted Tsitsanis.
During the German Occupation, the musician moved to Thessaloniki where he played in various taverns. During those years he wrote many songs, which were recorded after the war: “Ungrateful”, “Bachtse Tsifliki”, “The Circus”, “Magical Nights”, “Beggar of Love”, “Derbederissa” and,of course, “Cloudy Sunday” (Synefiasmeni Kyriaki), his best-known song.
In 1946, when he went back to Athens, he recorded all these songs. The 1945 – 1955 decade was the most prolific for Tsitsanis, as he wrote the bulk of his popular songs during that period.
With his songs, Tsitsanis brought to the foreground new singers who later would become legends in people’s music, such as Marika Ninou, Sotiria Bellou or Prodromos Tsaousakis.
The songs were plenty and great: “We are Tramps,” “I Took the Streets and Come to You”, “We Broke Up at Sundown,” “Crazy Gypsy,” “The Rain Falls Hard”, “Beautiful Thessaloniki”, “The Mountains Echo”, “Factories”, “You Make Mistakes,” “Little Crabs”, “Every Night I’m Sad”, “Dawning and Dusk is Falling”, “Come as You Are”.
After the mid-1950s, the form of people’s songs is changing. So is the acceptance by the general public. People’s songs are no longer appreciated by the poor Greeks only. The newly formed middle class shows an appreciation of people’s songs as they become softer and more polished.
Eastern and Western influences start to enter the songs and music is not only played in taverns but in clubs and bars as well. Tsitsanis tries to acclimate without abandoning his personal style. The same is true in the coming years when the music atmosphere changes again.
Tsitsanis started writing songs with the new influences, sang by new singers who became big with the years: Stellios Kazantzidis, Grigoris Bithikotsis, Akis Gavalas, Manolis Angelopoulos, Kaiti Grey, Polly Panou, Haroula Lambraki, Stamatis Kokotas. But Tsitsanis started singing many of his songs himself as well.
In 1980, under the UNESCO aegis, a double album titled “Harama” was recorded – that was the name of the club Tsitsanis performed in the last 14 years of his career and his life. In the album, he plays a number of his classic songs and several improvisational tracks with his bouzouki.
In 1984, on his birthday, Tsitsanis passed away at Brompton Hospital in London after complications following a lung operation. Only 24 days ago he was still performing at Harama and writing new songs.