Greek-American Home Recordings: The Undiscovered Country

March 6, 2021

Greek-American home recordings can well be called the undiscovered country of Greek music in the United States. The commercial reason for recording every musical tradition on the planet, in the first place, was basically that to hear any of this music one had to own or be able to use player equipment. In the beginning of commercial records all the European and American companies were individual monopolies that sold not just the records and player equipment but literally everything involved in this medium such as needles, albums to hold the records, and all the rest. Not long after the availability of recorded sound equipment, these very same companies as well as some newly formed enterprises, offered the general public the ability to make their own sound recordings.

Even in the earliest Greek record sales catalogs (and other such advertising materials) we find along with pages devoted exclusively to specific popular singers and orchestras, genres of traditional music and so on, equipment with the express ability to make one's own personal sound recordings. Given the technology of the day every home-made has two holes in the center of each record. One hole is off-center and drives the blank record as it is being recorded. The second and center hole is located just as found on a commercial record to fit over the turntable’s a metal rod allowing the home-made record to be played on any standard turntable.

Around 1930 companies started marketing products like the RCA ‘Radiola’, an electric phonograph with recording capabilities, and Radio Craft magazine noted, “home recording is likely to take the country by storm, as soon as the public awkens to its possibilities. Parents would like to preserve the voices of their children – and children in turn will be anxious to preserve the voices of their parents and grandparents; so that the spoken word will remain after the little folks have grown up, or the old have gone.” The Radiola cost a stiff $285 (around $4,000 today, making it a tough sell to Depression-era America) but the lower-cost Wilcox-Gay Recordio of the 1940s became one of the most popular record cutters.

As far as I have been able to discover no attempt has ever been made to systematically study a wide selection of any home recordings, let alone those produced exclusively by Greek-Americans. This fact is in stark contrast to the intense and highly systematic study of amateur snapshot photographs. Literally countless numbers of these amateur photographs have been surveyed, collected, and studied as can be seen in the ever-increasing scholarly books and journal articles on this subject. What I will offer here is a review of the very few home-made 78rpm recordings I have seen, heard or now hold. It isn’t anything like a representative number – but we have to begin somewhere.

Sometime in the winter of 1943, my father Deno and one of his cousins Ernie Katsikas found themselves in Chicago’s Union Station. Aside from the crowds and trains there was, at that point in time, also a large arcade in this station. In 1942, my father’s older brother Frank had been drafted and was in the navy as soon as he graduated high school. For reasons lost to history my father and his cousin entered an arcade booth where for a small sum of money they could record a 78-rpm record. Again, for reasons no one can recall these two young men sang the, then, popular comedic song, Mairzy Doats, which features the line “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey” (Mares eat oats, and does eat oats but little lambs eat ivy. A kid’l eat ivy too – wouldn’t you?) The small record they recorded popped out of the arcade machine with a stiff cardboard mailing envelope. The two immediately mailed it to my Uncle Frank, who was then somewhere in the Pacific.

In time I saw this record, heard my father and his cousin sing and was told, on various occasions, the tale of its origin. Frank so enjoyed this record (probably for the act of solidarity with him it represented) that he kept it his entire life. As far as I know my first cousins still have this record.

My mother’s brother George S. Harris studied the violin, for many years, with the renowned violinist, luther, teacher, and record company producer George Grachis (1882-1970). As I was often told, my uncle George participated on various occasions at the annual public performances of Grachis’ students which always appeared at one or another of the swank downtown Chicago hotel ballrooms. Among my uncle’s collection of records was a home-recording with his violin solo renditions of Misirlou on one side and Isle of Capri on the other. Both of these songs were performed at the Grachis school recital my uncle took part in. I deposited this record, along with his Greek commercial records, in Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music in Bloomington, Indiana.  

My father’s parents, Stavros and Katarina, were koumbari with the Lianos clan. And as it turned out the patriarch of the extended family Nick Lianos owned a Wilcox-Gay brand recording machine. My grandfather Stavro played the clarinet. My father and his brother always laughed when they recalled that my papou had to practice in the family bathroom since he played very loudly (and as I was told) with mad abandon. I never heard my grandfather play; by the time I was born he was extremely old and had experienced several severe strokes. Then, on a visit to one of the Lianos family homes I learned that in their family record collection was an old homemade record of my grandfather playing the clarinet while my grandmother sang. I asked if it could be played and I was shocked to discover that not only was my grandfather an exceptional clarinet player but that my grandmother had a voice to match. Given the strong ties between our families I am now the proud owner of that very record.

In my various accounts over the years concerning the Grecophon Record Company of Gary, Indiana I have reported how Steve Zembelos, the company’s owner and oftentimes principal performer, initially made several records on a Wilcox-Gay recorder that he took to Tetos Demetriades, the fabled Greek record producer, in New York City. While Zembelos’ trip did not work out as he initially thought, it did lead him onto the path of creating his own company.

Finally, my worst experience with a home recording occurred during a research project that took place many years ago.  I was just one person among several working on the same large project. At one point I was asked to translate a home recording. This home recording was of a joke told at a gathering of men. It proved to be an especially off-color joke with the butt of the humor being what happened to a Greek Orthodox priest. I refused to translate this ‘joke’ telling the project director that it was unquestionably in truth a very dirty joke. I went on to explain to the project director I did not want my name associated with this recording in any capacity. I thankfully was released from the project. This experience clearly proved the old adage among researchers that you can never predict what you find in any archive no matter how conservative or prestigious the host institution.  

Music played and continues to command the attention of Greeks living in North America. In Harry Mark Petrakis’ novel Days of Vengeance (Lake View Press, Chicago: 1999) there is an especially hilarious scene where some young Greek-American women begin singing operatic music to a captive audience. Accompanied by yet another piano-playing daughter the performance proves quite hair-raising, to say the least. Frankly, I have been in such situations in more than one Greek-American household (and I imagine Harry Petrakis had been as well) where I was among an unwilling but none the less press-ganged audience.

And one last recollection. The late Dino X. Pappas (1931-1999), the widely recognized Greek and Turkish music authority, once told me in passing that his mother and her sisters, back in Constantinople, used to wrap tin foil around a music cylinder (which is yet another type of early music player where, in this case, the music was on the cylinder) and so were able by singing into the funnel to record their own songs. The point being researchers on early Greek music, at this moment in time, can never predict what they may find among private collections. We are all of us left with the question, “what did Greeks in America choose to record that as survived on all these forms of amateur recordings?”


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