Greek American Thanos Karsiotis talks about the affinity of Blues with the Greeks and his own roots

"The Blues mean different things at different times, but you know them when they’re there. The Blues offer nothing, it is only the acknowledgment of them."

Thanos "BoiDetroit" Karsiotis: Aegean Blues

Athanasios father was from Angelokastro, Korinth (Greece) and immigrated to the United States in 1917. He studied the Kymvalon (Cymbalon) with Spiros Stamos in Chicago, Illinois and formed a band that played the midwestern United States until the early 1940’s.

The first professional gig was in 1966 with Bobo Jenkins and his Big Star Band. Thanos played for his review of entertainers that were promoting the records that they had recorded in his studio. He also played on many records recorded in that studio. It was in his studio he got to see John Lee Hooker who was a friend of Bobo’s and visited him often. The Drummer (Brazz Evans) and Thanos left Bobo’s Band to play with Billy C. Farlow (vocal and harmonica) and Boots Hamilton (Keyboard) to form a Blues Band. Billy went on to play with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. Brazz and Karsiotis formed a R&B band. The band was called The Jones Family and we played around the Detroit area for years.  

The Blues that he learned was the music of black people who had come up from the South for better jobs. During the 1960’s & 1970’s the Blues were being replaced by R&B that reflected the dances of the day. The black audience for the Blues in the US has nearly vanished. The white audiences in Detroit did not accept a mixed band (salt & pepper) at that time, so Brazz and Thanos formed a band that played music that fit what the people wanted to dance to. In the early 1980’s large jukeboxes and DJ’s were undercutting the market for live music. Thanos had been a part time sign painter and began to do that full time and only play out with friends for fun. Athanasios moved to Toledo, Ohio to take over an established Screen Printing and Sign shop with his wife (also a sign painter and guitarist). That left little time to do anything but run the business. 

After retired from the sign business Thanos purchased a used Epiphone Les Paul Special on Ebay and started playing at some local jams. He also play a Dobro with Bluegrass musicians and steel guitar for Blues, Hawaiian, Western Swing & Country music. Thanos recently acquired two pedal steel guitars and am attempting to learn them as well. He would like to aquire a Lauto from Kriti and add that also. 

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

Thanos, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues music & who were your first idols?

When I was very young I would stay up late and listen to a Jazz station that was broadcasting from Windsor, Canada (across the river from Detroit) . In those days it was possible to hear players like Charlie Parker playing live on the radio. When I was older and could go to the local Jazz clubs that didn’t serve liquor, I frequented the coffee houses and Blind Pigs (A Blind Pig is Detroit slang for an unlicensed club that is open after legal hours and bribes the police to stay open) to hear live Jazz.  At that time I was learning to play the guitar and I asked Sam Sanders (an exceptional sax player) what was necessary to play Jazz and he said to first learn to play the Blues. This was the beginning of my quest. It was my interest in Jazz that led me to the Blues. My first idols were guitarists like Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery and Jazz musicians like Roland Kirk, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. The first Blues Band that impressed me was the Howlin’ Wolf Band with Hubert Sumlin and I still consider that band the finest Blues band. One of  my guitar heroes has always been Cornell Dupree.

A friend of mine, Jim Jackson, from Howlin’ Wolf’s Band who had just returned from Chicago  told me about a Blues band in Detroit that needed a guitarist. I thought this would be the opportunity to learn how to play the Blues and met with Bobo Jenkins, the leader.  So, to answer the question, I became involved in the Blues before I had any desire to play them.

 

What does the blues mean to you & what does offer you?

“The Blues is a cold feeling like ice all down your spine” by T-Bone Walker, “Every time she walks the leaves tremble on the trees” by Sonny Boy Williamson, “What makes a man go crazy when a woman wears her dress so tight?” by Howlin’ Wolf, “Nobody but the devil could be that woman’s man” by Skip James.

The Blues is about men and women. My godfather would sing a song called to sapouni (the soap) about wanting to be the soap in his lover’s bath so she could rub him all over her body. That’s the Blues too!  The Blues mean different things at different times, but you know them when they’re there. The Blues offer nothing, it is only the acknowledgment of them.

 

When was the first time you felt the need to play the blues?

When I returned home to find she had taken everything but the dirty dishes and took my pitbull  too. That was over 30 years ago and I still miss that dog.

 

How did you choose the nickname BoiDetroit and where did it start?

The woman who became my second wife lived in Toledo, Ohio (80 Km south of Detroit) and worked near Manos Greek Restaurant. She told Manos Paschalis’ mother she was dating a Greek man from Detroit and Mama Paschalis began referring to me as Boy Detroit.  At the first Blues jam I attended in Toledo they had a signup sheet so as a joke I used Boy Detroit as my name. Later my daughter suggested to change it to BoiDetroit like the rappers in Detroit. Now all the players here in Toledo call me BoiDetroit.   Kurt Vonnegut said be careful of who you pretend to be…

 

Are there any memories from local blues clubs, which you’d like to share with us?

There never were any “Blues Clubs” in Detroit until the audience changed from black to white.  I left music as a career in the early 1980’s because DJ’s and Disco music were displacing live music and I never played in any “Blues Clubs.” I have many memories of playing in clubs, but I would not like to see them in print.

 

What is the usual funny story that you hear in bars?

I don’t know how to answer that one. I find bars depressing and only go to them if I am being paid.

 

Which artists have you worked with & which of the people you have worked with do you consider the good friend?

The artists that I have worked with that you may have heard of are: Bobo Jenkins, Junior Cannaday, Syl Foreman, Eddie Kirkland, Johnnie Mae Matthews, The Detroit Emeralds and Billy C. Farlow. Bobo was a good friend and I enjoyed visiting him after I left his band.  I haven’t seen Billy for years and I understand he is playing somewhere in France.  The friendships I had with musicians over the years were not with people you would be familiar with.

 

How did the blues music start revealing its secrets to you?

There are no secrets in the Blues to Greeks. "Mana Mou Ellas" or "Oso Varoun Ta Sidera" are Blues?  The scales may be different but the experience is the same.

 

What did you know about the Greek blues scene and what is your opinion about the blues.gr?

The Greek Blues scene was a surprise to me.  I thought that with people like George Dalaras, Michalis Tsouganakis, Eirini Derempei and Vasillis Lekkas why would you need American Blues. John’s website blues.gr has made me aware of the interest in American Blues in Europe that I didn’t know existed.  If  I get a chance to visit Greece I will have see the Lazy Club.

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

There are no secrets about the Blues - If you got them play them.  Mike Brazier, a Toledo guitarist told me shortly before his death that he played the Blues because he had them. We were talking about how it was when we were young and the Blues were popular and for no reason Mike says “I play the Blues because I got them.” There is no other explanation than that.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

One of the best moment was when I got to play at the “20 Grand” on the same stage that I used to see B.B. King play on.  At one time the “20 Grand” and Phelps Lounge were the premier clubs for black Detroiters. Before B.B. King was popular with white audiences it was possible to see him live for $1.50 admission.  I lived very close to the “20 Grand” and saw him every time he came to Detroit.  I never thought that one day I would be on that same stage and playing for the same people that he did.

One of the worst experiences happened in West Virginia.  Our drummer had rented the local hotel ballroom in his hometown for a show.  The proceeds for the show were to pay the rental.  What we didn’t know was that a boycott had been called on the hotel for racial discrimination. The management was going to confiscate our equipment for the rental so we loaded up the van and hit the road with the Sheriff  and State Police after us. The keyboard player was also from West Virginia and said he could run the mountain roads at night without lights, and he did. I don’t know how we reached the Ohio border but we did.

 

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

A memorable event was in 1968 when I was playing with Billy C. Farlow at the Democratic Convention in Detroit. The FBI and the event organizers told us not to mention anything about going to the National Convention in Chicago to protest the Vietnam War.  We had never played for 30,000 people before so Billy was very nervous.  He didn’t know what song to do next so I suggested “Going To Chicago.” After the opening line “I’m goin’ to Chicago…” the crowd exploded and the officials were not pleased. I must still be on a FBI list after that one.

 

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

Blues jams are something new. When I was playing professionally there was no such thing.  I see today that they are quite popular probably because it saves the club owner a lot of money.  There was a club here in Toledo called the “Music Suite” that “Eric Brazier and the Truth” had an open stage on Thursday.  Eric is an excellent Jazz/Blues guitarist (here’s a live link).  If you could play at their level you were welcome to sit in. The “Music Suite” closed a few years ago and that ended the best jam in town.

 

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Bobo Jenkinsand Eddie Kirkland?

There is little to tell about Eddie Kirkland because I only saw him when he came up from Georgia to visit Bobo or record in Detroit. I saw him again in 1988 and he didn’t remember who I was. What I remember best about Bobo is what he was able to accomplish. He was a sharecropper* from Arkansas that came to Detroit to work in the Chrysler auto plant. With the money he earned at Chrysler and without any formal education he built his own recording studio an started his own record label. He reminded me of my father who came to the United States with no money or education and built his own business. It was Bobo’s tenacity that I remember best.

I believe that people today want to romanticize the Blues and the musicians who played them. I think the same can be said for the Rembetika. I am someone who experienced both and there is nothing  special to report in either. Playing the Blues or Rembetika are about telling the truth and the truth is that the players were not special people. It is only the music that is important.

*Sharecropping was what the landowners offered the former slaves in the south. They would raise crops for sale and pay the landowner for seeds and rent from the income. The landowner would calculate the profits and the sharecropper would end up in debt. It is what the United States does on a global scale with the World Bank and IMF.

 

Are there any memories from Billy C. Farlow, which you’d like to share with us?

Billy C. Farlow has a great sense of humor that showed up in the songs he wrote while with Commander Cody. Brazz and I only played with Billy for a year or two and that was over 40 years ago. I really don’t remember too much from that time. I remember that Billy is Greek on his mother’s side.

 

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

Some may not consider him a Bluesman but the Blues personality  I would like to meet is Willie Nelson.  I hear he has some of  the best "mavro" (hashish) around.

 

What would you ask Robert Johnson? How you would spend a day with Albert King?

I would ask Robert Johnson what the hell “dry long so” and “dust my broom” mean.

I heard that Albert King and I shared the same love for Hawaiian music so I think spending the day drinking beer and listening to old Sol Hoopii and Dick McIntyre records would be fine.

 

How close is the status of way of life between the first Greeks immigrants in US and bluesmen?

Some of the first Greeks to the Americas were from Cyprus.  They were told that once the Smyrna colony in Georgia was complete that they would have paid their passage and be free to go.  After the colony was completed they were told that they couldn’t leave and would work  for free.  They escaped and went south to florida and founded St. Petersburg and the first Greek Orthodox church in the Americas.

In 1914 in Ludlow, Colorado Elias Spanitdakis AKA Louis Tikas a Union leader for the mine workers was shot in the back by private police and the federal troops opened fire on the striking miners and their families with machine guns.  This is the era that my father came here from Angelokasro, Korinth.  He told me that it was not pleasant but hardly as bad as the Africans and the Native Americans were treated.  He became a musician here in Chicago and studied the Kymvalon with Spiros Stamos.  His band traveled to most of the midwestern industrial cities.  The band was a mixture of Greeks, Syrians, Serbs and others but the music was Anatolian and Rembetika. All musicians at the time had to travel to make a living and before records a musician could make a good living.  In 1929 he would make $50 for a picnic ($630 in 2011 dollars). Before records all musicians made good money! Technology is not our friend.

(Photo: Anathanasios Karsiotis father plays Santur 1920's)

 

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarity between the Blues & Greek folk or Rembetiko music?

In my opinion there is little similarity between Blues and Rembetiko musically. Rembetika melody is in harmony with the mode where Blues is in conflict. The pentatonic Blues scale is a minor scale assaulting a major harmony. It is my belief that this is deliberate just as the marchers in the New Orleans parade seem to go in every direction but forward. Think of it as “the moutra” aimed at the dominant culture. The one similarity is playing “behind the beat” is common to both in some songs.  Culturally there are many similarities but not musically.

 

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