Manolis Chiotis is considered to be one of the greatest bouzouki players of all time. The musician, composer, and singer revolutionized Greek music with his four-course bouzouki and made music from Greece popular across the world, even in the White House.
Chiotis, born on March 21, 1921 in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece, was interested in music from a very young age. The musician took lessons in Thessaloniki and quickly learned to play the guitar, bouzouki, and the oud, a lute-like instrument from the Middle East and North Africa.
It was when Chiotis moved to Nafplio, a city in the Peloponnese, at the age of fifteen, when he began playing music professionally.
He later moved to the Greek capital, where he was meant to study the violin. While in Athens, he was recruited by a friend to play bouzouki for his Rebetiko band.
Manolis Chiotis developed unique style on bouzouki
Chiotis recorded a few songs in the traditional rebetiko style but decided to shake up the Greek music scene when he popularized the four-course bouzouki in the 1950s.
It’s unknown exactly who created the version of the instrument as it began to appear on the scene in the 1950s, but Chiotis is considered the pioneer of the four-course bouzouki.
The bouzouki is Greece’s most iconic instrument. The lute-like instrument with a long neck is traditionally three-course or has three sets of strings. Chiotis decided to add another set of strings, making the instrument four-course.
His innovation enriched the sound of the iconic instrument, and Chiotis was known to play the traditional instrument almost as though it were a guitar.
Today, the four-course bouzouki is the most popular, but many rebetiko musicians and traditionalists still play the three-course version.
Chiotis began to play his bouzouki in the high-class clubs of Athens even though the instrument had previously been associated with more traditional venues.
The musician wrote songs inspired by popular genres at the time, including mambo and early rock n’ roll and added a Greek twist with his new bouzouki.
He soon became one of the most popular musicians in all of Greece, a title which set him on a journey to bring Greek music to the world.
Greek musicians in the White House
The year 1960 was a great one for Chiotis. It was then that he traveled to the US as part of the Greek Foreign Ministry’s goal to transmit Greek culture across the world with his wife and longtime collaborator Mary Linda, who is featured on most of Chiotis’ biggest hits.
Chiotis and Linda performed in Greek clubs around Astoria, an enclave of Greeks and Greek-Americans in Queens, but word of their talent soon spread outside of the Greek sphere.
The duo began to perform in popular clubs around New York and the greater US and made a name for themselves in the music world.
They were even invited to the White House by US President Lyndon B. Johnson to perform on his birthday during which Linda and Chiotis were offered Green Cards by the President so that they could live and work in the US for as long as they wished.
Manolis Chiotis charms Grace Kelly
In the summer of 1961, Chiotis played for two of the most important couples at the time, shipping mogul Aristotle Onassis and opera great Maria Callas, along with Prince Rainier III of Monaco and actress Grace Kelly in Athens.
Journalist Dimitris Liberopoulos, Onassis’ biographer, writes in his book that the two couples, dazzled by his performance, asked to meet Chiotis in person after the show.
Callas told Chiotis that she had spent the evening translating the lyrics of his songs to Princess Grace, who was amazed by the musician and that the American actress loved the music “because she was in love.”
At that moment, Kelly asked Chiotis what the difference was between a bouzouki and an electric guitar.
In typical Greek fashion, Chiotis gave a poetic answer: “Mrs. Callas, please explain to Princess Grace that the strings of an electric guitar vibrate due to electricity, while the strings of a bouzouki vibrate through the heart.”
Despite these well-recorded instances with presidents and stars, another connection between Chiotis and a celebrity remains the most well-known, although it is clouded in mystery.
Many Greeks have likely heard the story that Jimi Hendrix was a fan and frequent listener of Chiotis and even cited him as an inspiration. Although it was later confirmed by Mary Linda to be true, many internet sleuths doubted the story’s veracity, as they could not find any record of such an occurrence at the time.
Regardless of its accuracy, the story makes it clear that Chiotis made a name for himself in the music scene in the US with his bouzouki.
Chiotis died on his forty-ninth birthday in 1970 after a period of rapid health decline due to heart problems. He had two children with his first wife, Zoi Nachi, and he and his musical partner Linda divorced in 1967.
A few months before his death, Chiotis, along with two other Greek musicians, played music outside the jail where his friend Mikis Theodorakis, the greatest Greek composer, was being held by the Greek Junta. They played the songs in solidarity with all the artists, musicians, and thinkers who were held and tortured under the far-right military regime at that time.