Born on 21st March 1921 (some sources claim 1920) in Thessaloniki, a port on the Thermaikos Gulf of the Aegean Sea and Greece’s second largest city, the speed at which he mastered the guitar and violin left his parents in no doubt that Manolis Hiotis was a musical prodigy. Wealthy restaurateurs, they encouraged their son’s exceptional talent, and paid for him to leave home at the age of 14, to study music in Athens. In 1936, Hiotis met the folk singer Stratos Pagioumtzis, one of the country’s biggest stars thanks to his fashionable Rembetiko style and remarkable voice. Pagioumtzis hired the teenager to play the bouzouki, an instrument that had been popularized by the influx of immigrants from Turkey during the late nineteenth century. It was the main instrument in Rembetiko, and Hiotis discovered that he was a true virtuoso.
A year later, Hiotis recorded his first song, το χρήμα δεν το λογαριάζω (The Money Does Not Count) and it proved to be a hit. Influenced by Rembetiko, which was often considered a somewhat lowbrow form of entertainment, Hiotis pioneered his own, more refined version of the original genre, which came to be known as Archontorebetiko.
Above: Manolis Hiotis – το χρήμα δεν το λογαριάζω (The Money Does Not Count) (1938)
A string of successes ensued for Hiotis, as a soloist and when working with fellow artists, such as the singer Apostolos Nikolaidis, and composers Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis.
Hiotis began to wonder whether his beloved bouzouki might be further improved. Given that the instrument’s name derived from the Turkish word ‘bozuk,’ which translated as ‘broken’ or ‘modified’, Hiotis did just that, and in 1946, he developed the first four-string bouzouki (traditionally, it had only three); resulting in a faster and more energetic sound. In 1950, Hiotis opened his own Athens nightclub which quickly turned into a hotspot for locals and tourists alike.
After meeting the young singer Zoe Nachi when she performed at his club, Hiotis married her in 1954 and the couple had two children. However, the union soon collapsed and in 1958, Hiotis re-married another singer, Mary Linda. The professional collaboration between Hiotis and his new wife saw them both reach the peak of their careers. As well as numerous recordings; they appeared in several films together, including West Side and East Side (1959) and The Wise Guy (1962).
Above: Manolis Hiotis and Mary Linda – Περασμένες μου αγάπες (My Past Loves) (1959)
With his matinée idol looks and suave manner, Hiotis became a household name in Greece, and in 1961, Aristotle Onassis and his then-lover Maria Callas, along with Prince Rainier of Monaco and wife Princess Grace, attended a show in Athens and requested a meeting with Hitois and Mary Linda backstage. Grace, who spoke no Greek, had particularly enjoyed the concert, and asked Callas to enquire how the bouzouki and the electric guitar differed. Hiotis replied, ‘the strings of an electric guitar are vibrated due to electricity while the strings of a bouzouki by the heart.’
Touring all over Europe and America, Hiotis and Mary Linda were invited to the White House to perform for President Lyndon B. Johnson on his birthday. In Chicago, they met Jimi Hendrix, who was awestruck by Hiotis. Questioned about his widespread designation as the greatest guitarist of all time, Hendrix rebuffed the title with characteristic modesty, ‘You think I’m the best in the world because you haven’t heard the Greek guy.’ When asked who he meant, Hendrix told the interviewer, ‘Manolis Hiotis. When you listen to him playing, then you will know who the best is.’
By the mid-1960s, their mutual success had started to wane and Hiotis and Mary Linda had started to drift apart, leading to their divorce in 1967. Hiotis soon found love again with the actress Bemba Kiriakidou and they wed in 1968 after a whirlwind romance.
A heavy smoker and drinker, Hiotis began to suffer ill-health. On 21st March 1970, as he celebrated turning 49, he was rushed to the General Hospital of Athens Hippocrates where he died of heart failure. Mikis Theodorakis recalled how, upon hearing the news, ‘I felt like my soul drained away, and I was left with just the blood in my body.’
It is thought that Hiotis wrote up to 1500 songs and even today, his bouzouki wizardry remains unsurpassed. Hiotis was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, and his funeral was attended by entertainers from all over the world. As a final tribute, Yannis Karabesinis, an actor and composer who had been a close friend, picked up the late musician’s bouzouki to play his 1958 hit Ηλιοβασιλέματα (Sunsets) as the crowd of mourners sang.
Above: Manolis Hiotis and Mary Linda – Ηλιοβασιλέματα (Sunsets) (1958)
Mikis Theodorakis: The Greek Soul – George Logothetis (2004)
Gods, Heroes, And Philosophers – Christopher Bonanos (2005)
Culture and Customs of Greece – Artemis Leontis (2009)