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Why Don't You Tell Us the Pain You Have: Greek​-​American Songs, 1928 - ca. 1948

by George Katsaros



The Life, Lies, and Lyrics of George Katsaros

When he died at home in Holiday, Florida on June 22, 1997, newspapers around the world memorialized the great Greek-American singer-songwriter George Katsaros as a 109-year-old badass, a walking antique, who had been everywhere and done everything. He had been a recording star from the late 1920s through Second World War, had toured for decades, and had been rediscovered in the 1980s, at which point he’d been flown to Greece and celebrated as a progenitor of rebetiko — an authentic Greek voice preserved in amber and plucked from the diaspora.

The stories he told about his life, adventures, and origins were spectacular and have been reprinted and shared among enthusiasts for decades. Having outlived practically everyone who could have remembered him as a young man, he could not have guessed then that we would be able to discover now that much of what he said about himself and has been repeated for over a generation is verifiably false. It takes nothing away from the music he made to know the truth but raises a lot of questions about how to remember a Greek-American artist.

When rebetiko researchers found him, decades past his heydey, he presented them with the birth certificate of one Yiorgos Theologitis, born in 1888 on Amorgos, and told them that it was him and that Katsaros was a stage name referring to the shock of kinky hair of which he was immensely proud. He had recorded a song called “I Started From Andros,” not so far from Amorgos. He looked amazingly ancient for a man who spoke with such lucidity and had so many stories. What reason would there be not to believe him?

The interviews with Katsaros conducted by Steve Frangos in 1985 and available through the site of the State Library and Archives of Florida are an invaluable resource on Katsaros’s self-mythology and some of what follows is drawn from them. Katsaros’s memories of his life were often highly detailed and therefore more or less verifiable. There are some vast craters in his narrative and some apparent fantastic inventions.

It seems reasonable to suppose that he was telling the truth that he was playing at a cafe called the Zapeion in New York around early 1917 when he had an opportunity to go to San Francisco to play at the Minerva and Acropolis Cafes, both on Folsom Street. The Minerva at the time widely promoted its family-friendly French dinners and 30-cent vegetarian lunches while, around the same time, being under scrutiny by the police for underworld activity, resulting in the 1919 withdrawal of its liquor license after a fire and a drugging-and-theft incident there made the news in quick succession. Police found the cafe in violation of the wartime prohibition act.

Katsaros named dozens of towns in California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Montana, and Nevada where he played during the period 1917-19. Performing a wide array of traditional Greek (and some Armenian) folk songs for audiences of agricultural workers, port workers, and miners, he spoke in generalities of this period, but the fact that he named specific venues (the Parthenon and the Aphrodite in Salt Lake City, for instance) and some bandmates, including cymbalom players Frank Gazis, who later recorded with violinist Demetrios Poggis, and Spiros Stamos, who later recorded for the Greek Record Company in Chicago, gives credence to his story. He bragged of earning $50 ($800 now) a night, often playing almost continuously from 7 PM to 2 AM. By 1920, he says, he was back east, playing at the Kentron Restaurant at 1018 Locust Street in Philadelphia.

His claim of having been called to sign a five-year contract with Victor Records in 1919 was fabricated, as were his descriptions of a tour to Mumbai, India (via Australia, Burma, Singapore, and other locations) or his assertion of a 1924 trip to Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa. "My records, they went all over the world," he said. "From every place in the United States and South America and Europe [...] they pay me and I take a boat and I go. Playing for the big concerts. I play for the churches, for the rich people." But he had not in fact made any records yet.

We can be sure of two significant events in the Summer of 1927. In June, he made his first recordings for Victor across the bridge from Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey, resulting in his first disc, “Elleniki Apolausis (Greek Pleasure)” / “A Kakoorga Eli (Cruel Hearted Elli).” And then, he married a 20-year-old woman named Ouranea (b. Dec. 25, 1907; d. April 28, 1984). Years later, she told a newspaper that she was the niece of Theodoros Pangelos who had become President of Greece in April 1925 in the aftermath of a coup, only to be deposed in August 1926 in a counter-coup.

By June 24, 1928, George and Oura were in Michigan, where George’s brother Harry lived, for the birth of their first daughter Arete (Rita). During the deepening of the Great Depression, four more children arrived - Steve (Jan. 13, 1930), Cleopatria (ca. 1933), James (ca. 1934), and Paul (April 23, 1936.) Parallel to the growth of their family, George made approximately annual trips to New Jersey, New York City, and Chicago to record. His memory in 1985 of the number of sides he made during that period was pretty close to the facts: 18 for Columbia and 36 for Victor, he said. In fact, he released 8 on Columbia and 33 for Victor as well as an additional 20 or so for Victor that were rejected and unissued. At present, we have evidence of one concert during that period, a fundraiser for the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform under the auspices of a Greek organization in Detroit on December 1, 1931, along with a Greek soprano and pianist.

Katsaros claimed to have recorded another 24 sides for Decca in the 1930s-40s, but we have no evidence of those. We know that he made about 10 sides for the Gary, Indiana independent label Grecophone and then in the 1940s, about six sides for the Metropolitan label in New York, and four or more for Standard, a label run by Tetos Demetriades, who had previously been the head of the Foreign division of Victor in the 1930s and had championed Katsaros then.

Evidence of George Katsaros’s true origin comes in WWII on his draft registration card. It states that he was born on April 3, 1898, in Trikala in western Thessaly. In support of that date of birth, his Ellis Island document states that he arrived alone on October 20, 1913, declaring his age as 17, which would have meant he was born in 1896-7. His brother Harry (whose WWII draft card as well as a 1930 border crossing document also gave Thessaly as his place of birth) had preceded him and settled in the Detroit area. Their parents’ names were Kristos (Gustos) and Zoe. So, he wasn’t from Amorgos, wasn’t Theologitis, and was a decade younger than he later claimed.

In 1940 his family of seven was living in a heavily Polish neighborhood in Wayne, Michigan along with a 51-year-old boarder, who, like George, was making $1,900 ($41,000 today) a year working six days a week as a switchman for the Grand Trunk Railroad between Six Mile and Nine Mile of Detroit. (The census that year also counted them at another house in Tarpon Springs, Florida where a "John Katsaros" is listed as the head of the household, employed as a driver.) Katsaros spent the Summer of 1943 playing hotels in the Catskills - the Monte Carlo, the Olympia, and the Sunset. Performing was lucrative enough that he and Oura got their picture in the Detroit Free Press that November for having bought a total of $842 in War Bonds (about $15,000 today), and his occupation was mentioned as “nightclub performer.” But on February 7, 1945, they divorced. He was 46; she was 37. In his later years, he said he was never married.

A few years earlier the German occupying forces in Athens had killed his mother for having hidden two American servicemen. Her house was burned. George’s sister Sophia survived and later emigrated to the U.S.

By 1950, Katsaros was living in Brighton, Massachusetts at 100 Washington Street. A newspaper account from November 1952 says that on his way home just before 5 AM, he was robbed at gunpoint. The two muggers grabbed $150 in small bills from his inner jacket pocket but, he bragged, neglected to check his pants, where he had another $2,000 in cash.

Meanwhile, back home, George and Oura’s eldest child was also in the papers. Having been drafted in 1949 to the Korean war, he’d been called back for another year of service as an enlisted infantryman. On February 12, 1951, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war until August 1953. He was 23 years old when he was reunited with his mother and siblings in Hamtramck, Michigan, including his younger brother James who had also served in Korea. Every member of the family is mentioned in the press notices of his joyful return except for his father.

Katsaros worked in the late 50s in Chicago and in Boston at the Club Zara at 475 Tremont St. According to researcher Amy E. Smith, the Club Zara might have had mob ties. On May 6, 1960, 25 days of police surveillance resulted in the dispersal of a crowd of 300 people at midnight and the arrest of seven women (five of them dancers in their 20s) and five men (including the maitre d, the manager, and an Armenian singer) under charges of “participating in or contributing to an immoral show.” Whether Katsaros was present that night or was even still working there at the time, we don't know. He said, probably speciously, in 1985 that he’d been one of its co-founders and took credit for hiring the club’s first bellydancer “Morocco” (b. Laurice Rizk in Aitaneet, Lebanon, Nov. 14, 1924, according to Smith.) The trial that resulted from the raid was a media circus, and all but one of those arrested were fined between $200 and $1500. Four of the dancers were given 3 to 6 months in prison. One dancer lost custody of her eight-year-old daughter. The club lost its liquor license. The District Attorney told the press “This is filth, real filth. It’s about time we get rid of that show.” If the vice squad had been looking for evidence of underaged employees or other illegal activities, the catalyst for the raid was simply when one dancer’s bra straps snapped.

Whether or not Katsaros was still in Boston when the raid happened, by about 1962 he’d moved to Holiday, Florida near Tarpon Springs. Through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, he performed sporadically at Greek community events and restaurants, often with the accordion player John Gianaros whom he’d known since the 40s back in New York. Katsaros was getting old with several lifetimes’ worth of experiences and songs in the head, still covered in a thick pile of hair that he kept vainly under a net at home. In an interview with Gianaros by Steve Frangos in November 1986 Gianaros responded to a question about Katsaros’s actual age: “Well, I hate to tell you, but he won't tell you the truth. He got to be 94, 95. If you ask him, he says 'I'm 84, 85.' But who the hell [knows]?’”  Katsaros was, in fact, 88 at the time. One of his closest collaborators guessed he was older but also knew he wasn’t truthful.

Why would Katsaros lie about his date and place of birth and go to the trouble of obtaining someone else's birth certificate? We can only speculate, but it is not out of the question that there was something in his life that he did not want to catch up with him even as he attained some notoriety in the late 1980s. Perhaps it was the family he left behind in Detroit in the mid-40s. Perhaps it was the authorities for something he'd done (or felt he'd done) wrong. Perhaps it was some of the underworld characters he'd crossed paths with in the course of his career. Maybe the birth certificate was an insurance policy so that, if someone knocked on his door, he could say, "you've got the wrong guy. I'm not George Katsaros, born in 1898 in Thessaly. I'm Yiorgos Theologitis, born in 1888 on Amorgos." Plausible deniability.

When a new generation of Greeks got hip to the 1920s-30s material of the old mangas, they found him in Florida. At 80-something years old, he wanted to know where the money was. He asked Frangos about how to collect royalties on his recordings from 50 years earlier and how to get a new record deal. In 1988, he traveled to Greece to perform and gave interviews. His old music was reissued. In March 1995, he was flown again to Greece to be honored by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs at a widely-broadcast concert and spoke and played for his countrymen (now available on YouTube youtu.be/zR_YJS1FQnw).

His reputation as a seminal force in the development of rebetiko, based on certain of his 1920s and 30s discs, is only part of the story of what he did. The vast majority of what he recorded were his own compositions and many of them spoke plainly of the nightlife, of an empathic eye for modern women, confidence as a gambler, an appetite for hashish, rough companions, and the hustling all of it entails. He also recorded songs that were comedic or deeply pathetic, as often in tango rhythms or with as many similarities to American songsters like Jimmie Rogers or Mexican conjunto as they were to the zeibekiko rhythms and Eastern tonalities of the rebetic demimonde that grew in Athens at the same time.

Playing a spruce-topped Martin parlor guitar made in Pennsylvania, his songs were straight-shooting, deeply honest, and deeply syncretic of his experience as a Greek-American. There is nothing Hellenistically “purist” about Katsaros’s records, but they are adamantly pure in their relationship to his own sense of himself. It made him unique and what made him one of the very, very few Greek performers to have been able to continue to record during the Great Depression.

In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash American record companies quickly reorganized and jettisoned much of their “ethnic” catalogs, affecting, for instance, Amalia Bakas and Marika Papagika, (both of whom Katsaros said he worked in the 30s on the road and the latter of whom he characterized as a "very, very lovely singer and a very very good person") or made their performances feel like remnants of an increasingly unfashionable “old world." Katsaros’s singular approach to his instrument and his plain-talking songwriting, as in his exhortation of Herbert Hoover at the end of his Depression ballad “With Pockets Empty” or his lament for the sick “Mother, I Have Tuberculosis” gave his records such lasting appeal that they were regularly repressed into the ‘40s, then again in the ‘80s, and now await a new generation to hear them in the context of the man he truly was - not a hash-hazed mummy who’d seen every corner of the world, but a man who’d lived a full life of difficult choices and found himself, in the end, running from something in his past.
What he was running from, we don’t know.


released June 8, 2020

Recording dates:
1, 2 May 18, 1928
3, 4, 5, 6 November 6, 1929
7 June 4, 1930
8, 9 1934
10, 11 April 1935
12, 13 August 26, 1938
14, 15, 16, 17 ca. mid 40s.

All compositions presumed to be by G. Katsaros except track 5 by D. Zakas, track 12 by by Tzovenos Costas, and track 16 traditional / untraced.
Photo from the Detroit Free Press, November 21, 1943.

Compilation, transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski.

Further reading:
Frangos, Steve. "Yiorgos Katsaros: The Last of the Cafe Aman Singers," monograph. Indiana University (Bloomington) 1992. Revised and republished in Greek Music in America (edited by Tina Bucuvalas, University of Mississippi Press), 2019.
Kounadis, Panagiotis. Yiorgos Katsaros (Ta Nea) 2012 and many photos and details at www.vmrebetiko.gr
Smith, Amy E. "Boston Bellydance Firsts" Fanoos Magazine, Dec. 2021 www.fanoosmagazine.com/post/boston-belly-dance-firsts
Spottswood, Richard K. Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942 (University of Illinois Press) 1990

Many thanks to Aydin Chaloupka and Joe Graziosi for their input and disputes. (All factual errors must be considered mine and not theirs.)


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