NEW YORK – I explained to several of my non-Greek friends that I was traveling to New York to cover the Yiannis Parios concert at Town Hall in Times Square, realizing full well that they had absolutely no idea who he was. I didn’t even bother to mention him by name. Instead, I explained to them that he is “the Frank Sinatra of Greece.”
Upon reflection, I thought some true connoisseurs of Greek music might object to that comparison, reserving that honor for Stelios Kazantzides, Vasilis Tsitsanis, or Stratos Dionysiou instead.
So, then, I thought calling Parios “the Billy Joel of Greece” might be more appropriate, given the parallel timelines: Parios is 69, Joel is 66, and both made a big splash on the music industry in the 1970s and now, 40 years later, both are living legends.
As I ventured to Town Hall for the concert on May 8, I expected to hear an aging superstar clearly past his prime but still good enough to display some flashes of brilliance. I figured, even a fraction of what Parios is now is leaps and bounds better than what most Greek singers will ever be.
To that end, I thought of Parios like Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, or Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, two amazing singers of Parios’ generation – though not his genre, they are both classic rockers – who are still a joy to watch even though they can no longer replicate the vocal prowess they possessed 40 years ago.
I was quite wrong, I’m happy to say. I expected Parios – whose rich, mellifluous voice is unparalleled, and whose passion and inflection fully commits the listener to the song – to put on a singer-friendly show: conserving his energy, and his voice, hitting the big and high notes prudently, judiciously, and strategically, thereby saving himself, and the audience, from embarrassing vocal cracks.
That was certainly not the case.
Parios emerged to thunderous cheers, wearing an imposing black blazer and radiant white scarf, belting out song after song with a booming, thunderous, baritone-tenor vocal instrument. He has become the Luciano Pavarotti of Greece, I thought. But even darker and more powerful – more spinto and Wagnerian – like a Franco Bonisolli or Placido Domingo.
The next surprise was Parios’ shtick. Banter and jocularity all night long. His recurring theme was that he was warned about the labor unions that represent the Town Hall’s employees. “Ta yoo-nee-oh,” he said, in a thick Grenglish accent, to the delight of the crowd. “They wake up, eat, and go to sleep,” he said, as he mockingly looked at his watch throughout the show, suggesting that they told him to hurry up and finish because the whole show was on the union workers’ timetable. “I don’t have my watch, he said at one point – I left it in Greece.”
Even as the show neared the end, more than two hours later, he remarked, in Greek, that the “union workers” had opened the doors already, waiting for the people to leave. “Den teleiosa akoma” he said in Greek, and then repeated it in English: “not finished.” Then, further delighting the crowd, he demanded: “Close the door! Close the door!”
Parios’ amazing career spans five decades and includes countless hit singles and albums. His most popular of all – and Greece’s all-time bestselling album – however, is the 1982 “Ta Nisiotika – The Island Songs,” which pay homage to the music of the Greek islands – he hails from one, Paros, in fact, his stage name “Parios” is a tribute to his home. His given name is Yiannis Varthakouris.
Well into the second hour of singing, the appreciative crowd unabashedly requested “Nisiotika!” to which he replied: “Mporw na min kano Nisiotika? – is it even possible for me not to sing the island songs?” Shortly thereafter, he sang a Nisiotika medley, dancing to the songs properly, with a syrto, unlike the default kalamatiano that many dance to those songs, erroneously.
CARUSO – BUONISSIMO!
Predictably, Parios closed with two of his masterpieces: “Pio Kali I Monaxia – Loneliness is Better,” and “Ena Gramma – One Letter.” The former, a 1984 smash hit, when he was at his peak; the latter, a 1981 breakthrough hit that propelled him to superstardom.
After about 150 minutes of delighting the crowd with hit after hit, though, Parios took his greatness to yet another level: “I’m going to sing one for myself now,” he said in Greek, and proceeded to belt out a wonderful rendition of Lucio Dallia’s “Caruso,” a 1986 Neapolitan song dedicated to the iconic tenor Enrico Caruso, and made famous by Pavarotti and later Andrea Bocelli. Parios’ Italian diction was on point – you wouldn’t know his homeland was one sea to the right.
It was an amazing experience. A legend who reinvented himself, trading a complex dulcet voice for a booming one propelled by sheer power, at a time when most of his contemporaries are toning it down.
It then occurred to me – as I left Town Hall, happy to have made the three-hour trip to New York City to hear him sing live, and he’s probably the only Greek singer for whom I would make such an effort – that he doesn’t really need to be Sinatra, Joel, Gillan, Plant, or Pavarotti, because he is simply Yiannis Parios – one of a kind.