The history of Greek music in the United States has featured in several books and articles that have appeared recently. Yet the Greek singers in America were not part of a small ethnic enclave. They were part of the music scene of several major American cities, especially New York.
From before the 1970s through the early 1990s, 8th Avenue in Manhattan was known as ‘Bouzoukee Boulevard’ after the string instrument with a pear shaped body and long neck, which is the central instrument in Greek popular songs. There were several Greek-owned night clubs and supper clubs along 8th between West 27th and West 30th streets which featured bouzouki-based urban folk music, known as laïká or rebetika.
The story of that world has been presented in a beautifully illustrated bilingual publication titled ‘Apostolos Nikolaidis: The Authentic Laïká Singer Who Was Never Censored’. The book tells the story of Apostolos Nikolaidis (1938-1999), a singer of Greek laïká music who made his name in the United States, where he was free to sing folk songs with their original lyrics in the early 1970s when this musical genre was banned in Greece during the Junta. The author is his daughter Maria, who has made excellent use of her father’s writings and photographs and supplemented the material with additional research.
Nikolaidis left Greece in 1968 to go and sing at a Greek-owned establishment in Montreal. After doing gigs in Toronto and Chicago, he arrived in New York in 1969. His first appearance in NYC was at the Istanbul club on 8th Avenue between 29th and 30th streets which was owned by the Pappas brothers. For the remaining thirty years of his life New York was Nikolaidis’ base, even though as he became better known he would travel frequently to Greece and also perform in other cities in Canada and the United States.
Nikolaidis, we learn from this book, saw clearly that New York’s Bouzoukee Boulevard was not a small ethnic enclave in the 1970s. He recalled that ‘Americans’ including blacks and Puerto Ricans went to the Greek-owned clubs and enjoyed the music and the dancing.
This was part of a broader trend in American music tastes which witnessed Greek songs such as ‘Never on Sunday’ and ‘Misirlou’ become part of the American pop music scene. This has been documented in another recently published volume, ‘Greek Music in America’ edited by Tina Bucuvalas and published by the University of Mississippi Press. The song Never on Sunday, sung by actress Melina Mercouri in the film with the same name won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1960, a first for a foreign-language picture. The traditional song Misirlou became widely known in 1962 thanks to American rock guitarist Dick Dale. An equally popular Greek melody in in America at that time was the syrtaki dance score composed by Mikis Theodorakis for the film ‘Zorba the Greek’ which premiered in New York City in 1964. The steady crescendo buildup of the tune quickly became favorite for baseball and hockey stadium organists. The popularity of these Greek songs brought a resurgence of the Greek nightclub scene in which Nikolaidis had a huge presence, albeit with ‘heavier’ versions of Greek popular songs that spoke of street life and drug use and employed a sharper, more jarring metallic version of the bouzouki sound.
I had assumed that the Bouzoukee Boulevard era had ended with the economic transformation of 42nd street and its surrounding area which began in the 1990s. But Nikolaidis’ biography tells us it started earlier and there were also other reasons. The first was overcharging by many of the establishments on 8th Avenue. Although there was no competition among the owners, some them decided to make extra money which soon made the ‘American’ clientele to stay away. Another reason for the demise of the Greek nightlife presence along 8th Avenue was the emergence of a Greektown in Astoria, Queens thanks growing numbers of new Greek immigrants who were settling there. The Greek-owned establishments migrated there as well and would continue to host not only a Greek-American audience but also other New Yorkers who were attracted to Astoria because of the growing popularity of Greek cuisine. The restaurants would eventually outlive the nightclubs as they would slowly grow out of fashion and Astoria would become more multiethnic, around the time Nikolaidis passed away aged 60 in 1999 because of health complications caused by cancer. He died while in Greece but in accordance with his wishes, his remains were flown back to New York and buried there.
Nikolaidis’ on and off thirty years presence on the music stage in Manhattan and Astoria coincided with an era in which Greek popular music became part of the music scene in New York. His creativity should be seen as part of America’s multiethnic cultural richness.