George Michael, Peter Andre, the drummer from Motley Crue, Marina and the Diamonds, Art Alexakis from Everclear; there is no shortage of Greek heritage diamonds on the world stage. That stage has been big enough for renowned Greek/Cyprus born or based artists to share. Based on the criteria that a Greek artist has sold records abroad and gained significant acclaim outside the Greek world, the following ten stars have risen above all others. The list keeps clear of Greek heritage only artists.
#10 Filippos Pliatsikas
It’s easy to start the list with one of the most talented artists and songwriters in Greek history. What was hard was separating him from the band that made him famous, Pyx Lax. The band holds the record for the highest grossing tour in Greek history (2011), impressive enough. Though what is truly impressive is the talent flowing through the veins of this giant of the local music scene. Some of the people he has collaborated with since his first solo offering in 2002 include R.E.M, Sting, Harris Alexiou, George Dalaras, Nina Hagen and Eric Burdon (The Animals). With nine studio releases including an array of English songs and a recent English language album, Filippos appeals to non Greeks as evidenced by audiences who attend sold out shows across Europe and America. His 2007 Omnia album is widely viewed as a masterpiece (selling well across the Balkans). Then again all of his albums seem to fall into that category.
#9 Anna Vissi
If Filippos is perhaps a rock royal or king, Anna Vissi is surely a Queen of the music scene. 141 singles from 32 albums and around 10 million sales globally, the Cypriot born singer and songwriter is one of the most talented artists in the world. Some of her hits have charted in Russia, Austria, the US dance chart and she even had a Turkish number 1! Her talents are acknowledged across Europe and she is without doubt a great entertainer on the stage as well.
#8 Despina Vandi
With 10 studio albums and 51 singles, the German born Despina Vandi has built a strong back catalogue. Unlike Vissi, Despina has relied on Phoebus to write most of her hits which have included top ten entries for Gia (#8 Netherlands), and number 1 for Come Along Now (Turkey, Ukraine). Gia and Opa Opa both reached the top spot on the US dance chart. No other Greek artist had achieved that by 2003/2004. Even more incredibly, she became the first Greek based artist to have received a World Music Award! All these firsts including having two chart topping albums in Turkey help edge her ahead of Vissi and on to this list.
#7 George Dalaras
The son of a rebetika singer, George has produced music that our parents and grandparents grew up with. 15 million worldwide sales from 70 albums began with the Harris Alexiou collaboration, Mikra Asia. He earned the wrath of Turkish authorities in 2007 when he was due to play in Constantinople (Istanbul) for the closing of the Greek Orthodox Youth Conference. His patriotic Greek views were apparently not well disposed of by the Turkish authorities. Like Filippos, he has played with some heavyweights from Pyx Lax, Manos Loizos, Manos Hadjidakis Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Jethro Tull. The music has also strayed from the Greek folk and rebetika genre to include Arabic, Latin and Israeli. A Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency, an honour that few Greek artists have attained.
#6 Harris Alexiou
A one time collaborator with George Dalaras in 1972 and again in 1973 with Byzantinos Esperinos, Harris is the highest selling Greek based female singer. When critics and the music public reflect on Greek music, Harris’ name usually features. And why would it not with a talented voice and musical ability, she was that popular in Turkey that a street in Smyrna where she has heritage is named after her. It is claimed that she is the only Greek based artist to have performed on all continents in the world. Her music has been released in territories such as Japan and Canada.
The Kalamata born Yanni Chrysomallis was never destined to be one of the world’s best composers for at the age of 14 he was the fastest 50 metre swimmer in Greece (age category). Upon moving to the US and studying at a College he joined a band…. and the rest as we say is history as the young Yanni gained an appetite for music. Through the 1980’s Yanni developed a range of soundtrack albums and dated Linda Evans. Then Oprah Winfrey became a fan and soon enough 2 of his albums including the 1992 Dare to Dream and the 1993 In My Time received Grammy nominations. That year proved to be a watershed one for the composer and producer, with his Live at the Acropolis filmed and released the following year. Yanni invested $2 million of his own hard earned drachma. The result being the second highest grossing concert video of all time and a global audience of half a billion. His albums consistently chart in the Billboard top 20 whilst 16 have reached number 1 on the New Age chart.
#4 Mikis Theodorakis
Arguably the greatest son of Chios, the influence of Mikis is hard to capture in a few sentences. Nothing I will write can do this man any justice for he is revered the world over. His career may never have matured as there were many times he was sent to exile during the Greek Civil War and indeed tortured. This was to be repeated under the Junta in the 1960s, when his music was banned!
Zorba’s Dance (and the movie soundtrack) is undoubtedly his signature composition, which was based on two traditional Cretan tunes, Armenohorianos Syrtos and Kritiko syrtaki. This is perhaps the most famous song in Greek history, covered by a range of artists from Mexico to Aboriginal (dance interpretation). His compositions and body of work is endless and is credited with one of the best Holocaust compositions with The Ballad of Mauthausen. Mikis is one of the most awarded Greek artists which includes the Lenin Peace Prize.
#3 Maria Callas
One of the greatest opera singers the world has ever known and is likely to know, Maria Callas was a true global star. 39 recorded albums and 50 stage musical roles, she posthumously won a Grammy award and was also voted BBC Music Magazine’s greatest ever soprano! She belonged to a golden age of Greek talent that included Melina Mercouri, Aliki Vougiouklaki, a vast array of composers and Onassis, her one time love. Maria would grace the cover Time and many publications of the 1950s. Whilst she was actually born in New York, she lived in Athens from her teenage years.
#2 Demis Roussos
When Demis Roussos, the flamboyant and extremely talented singer passed away in 2015, the world lost one of its best. 70 million records sold tell only part of the story; the Alexandria born Demis was a genius of the 1970s with charisma and a sound matched by few in the industry internationally. Turn the radio on and his music played. He started his career in the 1960’s with the acclaimed Afrodite’s Child which had a number of hits abroad and at one time featured composer Vangelis. Demis owned the decade that followed with classics including Forever and Ever and My Friend the Wind. With 38 albums to his credit, many of his songs charted in the Top Ten. Arguably the first true male Greek superstar based in Greece.
#1 Nana Mouscouri
A superstar that time has almost forgotten as Madonna, Mariah and Beyonce do their best to take her title…. that being the highest selling female of all time. Well, actually Madonna has now surpassed her sales figures of 250 million, leaving her as the second highest selling female and the fifth highest of all time. Not bad for a Cretan born singer who wore glasses. Ioanna (Nana) started her career in 1959, and her incredible ability with languages and to sing in French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian to go with Greek and English enabled her to reach markets that few dared to dream about. Her White Rose of Athens tribute in 1961 is a song that was considered one of the most played and listened to of that decade. This was a song adapted from a composition by Manos Hatzidakis. Whilst Demis was a superstar, Nana was even bigger! Her music featured in commercials all over the world and she was constantly mobbed in her new home of France. Her English language record, Over and Over, stayed on the British chart for two years! Greece will probably never see the likes of her again. Her music, her concert tours and a vast repertoire of music are from an era where only talent and hard work got you through.
Notable mentions: Vangelis is one of the great soundtrack composers in history from Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner, Alexander, El Greco and his albums consistently feature in the mainstream top 40. Afrodite’s Child generating 4 number One hits across Europe, Glykeria the singer with charting albums across Europe and Israel, Marinella the acclaimed songstress with 66 albums, whilst Manos Hatzidakis could have been included on the top ten list. His work and compositions will be remembered forever. A final mention also goes to Elena Paparizou with two number 1 hits in Sweden and formerly a member of Antique with top ten songs in Europe.
* Billy Cotsis is the author of the Many Faces of Hellenic Culture.