The Greek world has been truly blessed by some of the most talented recording artists in history, from the ’50s- era Johnny Otis to latter-day artists such as Marina and the Diamonds. Let’s look at 10 Greek-heritage artists born outside of Greece and Cyprus who had a significant career globally with sales and influence. Considered but not included is brilliant Motley Crew drummer Tommy Lee who was born in Athens, not the US, as most believe him to be.
#10 Dimitri from Paris describes his sound as “music to swing to, lovingly crafted for your aural pleasure”. That statement alone quantifies the style and substance of one the finest house music producers, who managed to draw in disco and other sounds over a career featuring 22 albums. Born in Constantinople, he migrated to Paris and in 1986, helped popularise the house genre across France with his radio broadcasts and through providing soundtracks to major fashion shows.
A key feature was his ability to mix records live on air. House music owes a debt to the DJ/producer whose ‘Sacrebleu’ album sold 350,000 copies in Europe alone. His influence in Europe ensured that my favourites, Art Alexakis from Everclear and Elena Paparizou, just missed out on the list.
#9 Peter Andre is one to stir debate. Down Under he may have been every teenage girl’s dream growing up in the ’90s, condemning him to heart-throb status. A few thousand kilometres away in the UK and Europe he is known for what he is very good at − singing. Born in the UK and raised on the Gold Coast, he had a string of massive hits including Mysterious Girl and Funky Junky in Australia, before his career flourished abroad. Four of his albums reached the UK Top Ten including Come Fly With Me, his fantastic 2015 swing album which showcased his depth. Four of his singles have charted at #1 in different countries.
#8 Alexis Korner was, like Dimitri, a Parisian. With a mixed Jewish and Greek heritage, he lived in different Mediterranean countries before calling the UK home. Bruce Eder of AllMusic sums him up thus: “Without Alexis Korner, there still might have been a British blues scene in the early 1960s, but chances are that it would have been very different from the one that spawned the Rolling Stones, nurtured the early talents of Eric Clapton, and made it possible for figures such as John Mayall to reach an audience.”
#7 Kelly Clarkson won American Idol or something like that on manufactured TV. She was expected to fade … then talent and hard work set in and she now sits on 36 million singles sold and over 25 million from seven albums. Kelly has a mix of cultures that make up her DNA, though it is the Greek side she has an affinity to and she can speak the language fluently.
#6 Maria Callas was born in Astoria in New York, only moving to Athens as a teenager. One of the greatest opera singers the world has ever known and is likely to know, Maria Callas was a true global star. With 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 Aristotle Onassis, her one-time love. Maria would grace the cover of Time and many publications of the 1950s.
#5 The Andrews Sisters, featuring LaVerne, Maxine and Patty, were born to a Greek father, Peter Andreos, and a Norwegian mother. Before the advent of rock and pop, the world was treated to the swing, harmony, jazz and boogie woogie of the sisters. Their fact file contains 600 recordings with almost 100 million sales globally and 46 Top Ten placings. They were active mainly before Billboard officially counted sales and radio play. This reason, and the fact there was less competition before Elvis and the Beatles, keeps them no higher than #5 on the list.
#4 Frank Zappa is one guitarist, singer and songwriter that time will never forget. With an incredible 62 albums released during his lifetime and more than 40 since his 1993 passing (not even 2Pac had that many posthumously), there is little more we can add. Except to say he is consistently mentioned in the same breath as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Stones. His heritage is from Naples and a Greek village in Sicily.
#3 Cat Stevens, aka Steven Demetre Georgiou, was born a London lad, with a career in the ’70s that made him a superstar. Like many a Greek, I have felt (fleetingly) disappointed he converted to Islam, however, his humanitarian work and belief in people makes religion a moot point. Very pleased to hear how he refers to his Greek Cypriot roots and culture. Accumulating 14 studio records and 26 singles, this extraordinary talent has created some classics.
#2 Demis Roussos, the flamboyant and extremely talented singer, passed away in 2015, and the world lost one of its best. His 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 on the radio and his music played. He started his career in the 1960s 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.
#1 George Michael, like Cat Stevens, has Greek Cypriot heritage and a music catalogue that quite simply is timeless. Even if his career stopped with Wham!, between 1982 to 1986, he would be remembered. The fact is he went on to not only outsell his pop duo group, but matured and became a genius of the highest order. Turn on the radio, sit in a bar or switch on a music show and chances are you will hear one of his tunes. His ‘Faith’ offering alone sold a staggering 25 million copies and his very average ‘Songs from the Last Century’ sold well internationally, which proves his poularity around the world.
Whether you are Too Funky or simply after a Careless Whisper, chances are you will be singing along.
Honourable mentions: the charismatic Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand, Everclear, Elena Paparizou, who had many hits in Europe and previously with her band Antique, Johnny Otis from the 1950s, opera singer Mario Frangoulis, Marina and the Diamonds from Wales, Romanian-born Iannis Xerakis and rapper Diam.
* Billy Cotsis is the author of ‘The Many Faces of Hellenic Culture’.