The passing of Grigoris Bithikotsis on April 7, 2005 marked the end of the era of the great Greek folk singers (laikos tragoudistis) and songwriters. Voices like that of Bithikotsis belong to a different time, to a different Greece.
The great writer and scriptwriter Dimitris Psathas dubbed Bithikotsis “Sir”, a nickname to honor his greatness and his royal-like presence in Greek popular music from 1960 and on.
Born into a working-class family in the poor Athens neighborhood of Peristeri on Dec. 11, 1922, Bithikotsis picked up the guitar as soon as his hands would allow him to handle it. He was the youngest child of a family of eight and he had to work as a plumber to help them make ends meet.
At nights, the teenage Grigoris would play guitar and sing European songs at a local tavern. On a cold winter night in 1937 though, he found his true muse when he heard three musicians playing bouzouki and singing Greek songs. They were Markos Vamvakaris, Manolis Chiotis and Stratos Pagioumtzis.
Young Grigoris was amazed and that was when he embraced the rembetiko and laiko genre and started practising songs in his bedroom at nights.
In 1947 he was a political prisoner in Makronissos, along with leftists and rebels. He served there for two years, forming a band to entertain the army officers in the evenings. There he wrote his first songs and met Mikis Theodorakis, the composer who would change his life a little over a decade later.
After his release, he set up his own band and in 1949 he entered the record industry business as a composer. Later he started singing as well, as his voice had a very distinct, attractive tone. Soon his career was one-part composer, one-part performer of other people’s songs.
Bithikotsis composed at least 200 songs, with most of them becoming successful. “Episimi Agapimeni”, “To Mesimeri Kaiei to Metopo mou”, “Mia Gynaika Fevgei”, “Amfivolies”, TTou Votanikou o Maggas”, “Se Touto to Steno”, “Trelokoritso”, “Stou Belami to Ouzeri”, “Ena Omorfo Amaksi Me Dyo Aloga” and many others.
In 1959 there was a great change in Bithikotsis’ career and Greek music in general. The singer put his great folk voice to compositions by Mikis Theodorakis and the poetry of Yiannis Ritsos.
His voice in “Epitafios” and “Axion Esti” brought goosebumps to listeners, while at the same time serious poetry merged with folk music and folk singing for the wider public.
From 1960 through 1966 he recorded a series of seminal albums to Theodorakis’ compositions and Ritsos’, Odysseas Elytis’ or Giorgos Seferis’ poems. “Epitafios”, “To Tragoudi tou Nekrou Adelfou”, “Politeia A”, “Politeia B”, “Romiosini”, “To Axion Esti” include some of the greatest Greek music ever recorded.
In 1967, the dictators chose Bithikotsis’ voice along with that of Vicky Moscholiou to sing a hymn to the junta, something that he did and was criticized for. In fact, shaving his moustache at the time made many believe that he was trying to shed his leftist past.
However, after the fall of the dictators, in a great 1976 concert Bithikotsis stood next to Theodorakis and brought tears to the crowd’s eyes singing “Axion Esti”.
In 2003 the great singer/songwriter was presented with the Golden Cross of the Phoenix Order and the Golden Medal of the City of Athens President Konstantinos Stephanopoulos.
There have also been many concerts in his honor. In June 1997, a popular concert was held to celebrate his 50th anniversary in Greek folk, while in 2002 a big event was organized by the Ministry of Culture at the Peace and Friendship Stadium with the participation of dozens of important artists.
A few months before he died, he was awarded the Honorary Prize at the Arion Music Awards.
Bithikotsis was married twice and had three children. He named his son Grigoris, who also became a singer. When he was asked why he chose to give his son the same name as his own, he replied: “Because the day I die, I want a Grigoris Bithikotsis to come back home after the funeral.”
Bithikotsis passed away after a brief hospitalization on April 7, 2005 at the age of 83.