Maria Karelas Roumell: Legendary Singer

February 22, 2021

I first heard about Maria Roumell in the traditional fashion for a musical legend – from a long-time fan. Dino X. Pappas (1931-1999), the late record collector, not only told me about Ms. Roumell's career but especially praised her version of Misirlou, which he asserted, was the daily opening music, for a time, for a local Greek radio show in Detroit. As was his custom, Dino then, played me some of Roumell's music, commenting on it here and there. As the music played I heard additional stories of her career, something of specific performances with other notable Greek musicians, and a bit about her years in the Detroit area.

Regrettably, Roumell is yet another of those Greek-American musicians who distinguished themselves during their lifetime but whose careers have somehow faded from the general histories of Greek musicians in North America – and beyond. To be sure, her records are still available – although now they are with ever growing frequency much sought after collector's items. Some day the full history of Greek music and musicians in North America will be written. I offer here but a short sketch of an extremely accomplished vocalist.

In 1911, Maria Karelas was born and raised in Decatur Illinois by Gus A. Karelas (1894-1946) and a Greek mother, for whom I could only learn her maiden name, Arygropulos. Maria was the eldest of seven children, all gifted musically. It was common knowledge in Decatur that the Karelas children had, “inherited musical talent from their maternal grandfather, who was leading baritone with the Greek national opera in Athens (Decatur Daily Review November 3, 1937).”

During Maria's formative years there were roughly100 Greeks living in Decatur and surrounding communities in central Illinois. On April 14, 1919, a charter was granted by the State of Illinois for the organization of the Hellenic Society. From this simple beginning the Annunciation Church, now located at 570 N Union St #2126, Decatur, IL 62522, eventually came into being.

Literally dozens of news reports in local Decatur newspapers attest to young Maria Karelas' growing talent. Undoubtedly future researchers will devote a great deal of time charting young Karelas' steady growth as a public performer. In a recent reminiscence, fellow Decatur-Greek, Father Nicholas J. Greanias, recalls a number of especially fine local musicians. “I remember well the wonder of the Annunciation Decatur Choir when I was growing up in the 1950s. I never heard better singing. That little choir sent Maria Karelas to an international opera career (The Loft Spring 2020: 23).”

By 1936, as seen in local news accounts and the ever growing number of her public performances, Maria Karelas was praised as a singer of exceptional gifts (Decatur Daily Review August 19, 1936). Not long after, Karelas was studying on scholarship at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Later Karelas attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and thereafter continued her studies with several prominent vocal coaches. What is especially revealing in every published account is the constant reference to the quality and range of Karelas' voice. There did not seem to be a musical tradition or style in which she did not excel in her performances.

Examples of this range in Karelas' 30-year career included stints as a singer in the early days of Lawrence Welk's show, on which she was a champagne lady. At this moment in her life Karelas was an opera student on a scholarship in Chicago. A friend suggested she try out for a singing job with Welk's new orchestra. Welk (1903-1992) was putting together not only a musical orchestra but a troupe of singers and dancers in Minneapolis-St. Paul at the Statler Motel. As Karelas later recalled “I went up there and auditioned that afternoon. He hired me on the spot and put me to work that night.” Roumell went on to recall that while she only spent some eight-months singing and dancing with Welk, “I don't know about others, but I got along well with Lawrence. He understood I wanted to pursue my opera career and not be on the road traveling. When I left, he told me, 'I don't now how far I'll go in this business, Maria, but I just want you to know you are my first Champagne Lady.’ I always cherished that title. I don't know whether it matters or if anyone would care, but I was Lawrence Welk's first Champagne Lady to waltz with him.” (Detroit Free Press May 22, 1992).

For those readers unfamiliar with Lawrence Welk, he was an “American musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario, who hosted the television program The Lawrence Welk Show from 1951 to 1982. His style came to be known to his large audience of radio, television, and live-performance fans (and critics) as 'champagne music.’ Which essentially was an eclectic mix of popular music of the day judiciously mixed with a wide variety of show tunes and traditional American songs from the past.”

After leaving Lawrence Welk, Roumell, was soon offered a contract with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But just as this dream and offer of a lifetime was extended Maria Karelas unexpectedly turned them down. At some point within this period Karelas had met and married George Roumell (1901-1969), a Detroit caterer. By all accounts the couple had a marvelous marriage. Karelas, now Maria Roumell, worked side-by-side with her husband yet still found time to sing and even record.

During this period, Roumell sang most often in Detroit at what's now the Michigan Opera Theatre, and once performed in a showing of ‘M. Butterfly' at the city's Mason Temple. She also performed with New York's Metropolitan Opera on a Detroit visit and sang folk music in an early-1960s Carnegie Hall concert. In 1965, Roumell performed in Czechoslovakia with its government-run opera company and during that same tour in a Salzberg, Austria, music festival.

Maria Roumell is of particular interest to the overall history of Greek music in North America given the time period and venues in which she was most active. For unlike the blazing bouzoukis and Zorba dancing of the 1960s-1970s Greek restaurants around the nation Roumell is remembered especially for her renditions of elafor tragoudia i.e. popular light music. During this period of Greek music in North America these so-called 'light songs' were also featured in these very same restaurants and clubs.

It must be stressed that traditional Greek music in North America is not necessarily the exact same music heard and played among Greeks elsewhere on the planet. Just as Greeks in North America have their own distinct histories of daily life so too can one report upon their very specific responses to music. Another factor in terms of music is that in the early 1960s – due to the international success of films such as Never On Sunday (1960), Zorba the Greek (1964), and 'Z (1969)' Americans re-discovered local Greek owned night-clubs and restaurants. This new attention led directly to an increase in musical performances, belly dancing, and the very active encouraging of American customers to get up and dance. The Greek-Americans held public protests against the Greek Junta 1967-1974 and the subsequent publicity was constantly heard in these same venues.

Not unexpectedly perhaps, the musical divisions one can note during the 1960s-1970s in Greek public venues proved to be specific community responses to the Junta. In the United States, the music heard in big-city Greek-owned venues, soon split between music of the 1880-1940s era and the very public showcasing by certain restaurants/clubs of the newly evolving protest music of Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hatzidakis, Manos Loizos, Stavros Ksarchakos, Iakovos Kampanellis and a host of others. In Chicago, Denny's Den, in its various locations around the city over the 1960s and 1970s, showcased this newly composed music. Smaller, more exclusively Greek clubs and piano-bars also featured this new music for the more recently arrived Greek immigrants.

Aside from her own individual performances Roumell is well remembered among Greek-American audiences for her long association with Nikos Gounaris. Gounaris (1915-1965) was an especially noted elafró singer and is today recognized as among the foremost Greek composers and musicians of the 1950s and 1960s. Gounaris was especially popular in the Greek community in America, singing of love, betrayed lovers, and lost love. Gounaris' hit songs included 'Ena vradi pou 'vrehe,' 'Glikia mou matia agapimena,' and 'Omorfi Athina.' Gounaris composed some 400 songs and was often called 'Mr. Greece.' Nikos Gounaris died on May 5, 1965 of cancer.

While public documents abound with reports of Roumell and Gounaris in performance, exactly when and how the two musicians met and began performing together is still an open question. Documents of all sorts report that the venues in which this duo performed included nightclubs, Catskill Mt. resorts, ballrooms, theaters, and other such performative settings. Yet as with so much of modern Greek history in North America basic research on both these highly popular performers has yet to be conducted.

Maria Roumell, died Sunday February 11, 1996 of a heart attack at Bons Secours Hospital Grosse Pointe. With any consideration of Roumell's lifetime of performance we are forced to simultaneously reflect upon the enduring complexity of Greek musical traditions in North America.


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