Apostolos Nikolaidis: Biography
Apostolos Nikolaidis was born on the day of the Twelve Apostles, June 30, 1938. He was born in Drama, a city in the province of Macedonia in northern Greece. While still a toddler, his parents Giorgos and Maria moved to nearby Thessaloniki, and little Apostolos grew up in the Kato Touba (Sikies) section of the city in relative poverty.
Music was always in Apostolos’ blood. As a young child, he would sing the popular elafra tragoudia he heard on the radio and whatever songs his mother, a seamstress, taught him. Although his great affinity for singing was obvious from a very young age, upon completing grade school in 1951, he went to work with his father in construction. While doing his part picking up nails or carrying cement on construction sites, he would sing songs to himself and for anyone who would listen.
It was when Apostolos heard songs on the radio sung by Stelios Kazantzidis, a performer he admired greatly, that he realized his calling. Much to his parents’ chagrin, he bought a guitar, formed a trio and started to sing around the neighborhood. The youngsters sang the well-known songs of the time, mostly hits performed by popular artists like Kazantzidis and Grigoris Bithikotsis.
After finishing his compulsory military service in 1962, Apostolos took his musical ambitions and set off for Athens and Columbia Records. Columbia was the pre-eminent Greek record company at the time, and most of the country’s big performing artists were signed with the label. After boldly introducing himself to label management, he was able to secure an appointment for an audition later in the week at the historic studios in Rizoupoli. Upon his arrival, Apostolos discovered that Kazantzidis himself was in for a recording session. He nervously waited for his idol to finish recording; then, he sang one of Kazantzidis’ hits, “Duo portes ehi i zoi,” with Kazantzidis still in the studio. Both Kazantzidis and Columbia were impressed, and Apostolos was invited to sign a three-year contract with the label.
While on the Columbia Records artist roster, Apostolos recorded songs by many of the music industry’s top composers at the time, including Manolis Hiotis (a close friend and mentor), Giorgos Lafkas, and Apostolos Kaldaras. Apostolos’ first 45RPM single, 1962’s “Esi me pligoses varia,” was written by Lafkas. Other songs Apostolos recorded during the early 60s included Karabesinis’ “Maures ipopsies,” “Den se thelo gia gineka” by Kaldaras, “Esena eho ki’afto me ftani” by Hiotis, Klouvatos’ “Krata to heri mou sfihta”, and the self-penned "To ematha-to ematha.” Concurrently, he performed at historic venues such as Anemona alongside Lafkas and Kaldaras, Kouinta, To Hriso Vareli, and at the famed Koulourioti’s alongside Kazantzidis and Marinella, where he first became wider known to the public.
Although Apostolos was given songs to record written by many of the top composers of the time, they were generally not hit material, and this distressed him. Because of the lack of hit-worthy songs available to him as well as a number of creative differences between him and Columbia’s management, Apostolos left the record company when his contract expired in 1965. In 1967 he signed on with Vendetta, a small record company formed by singing greats Panos Gavalas and Poli Panou (both also formerly signed on the Columbia label). His big hit on Vendetta was 1968’s “Asimorfoti.”
Eventually disillusioned with the Greek recording industry and in search of greener pastures, Apostolos set out for North America in 1968. He worked with esteemed bouzouki player Haris Lemonopoulos in Canada for a couple of years; working his way down to the U.S., Apostolos performed in clubs in Chicago and New York. Apostolos recorded his first long-play album, “O Gialinos Kosmos,” with Lemonopoulos on bouzouki in 1969 and continued to perform in supper clubs while contemplating a new album. The custom at the time was for Greek overseas acts to record albums containing covers of current Greek hits—but Apostolos had other plans.
Through his engagements and performances in Greece in the 1960s, Apostolos had come in contact and worked with many of the great composers of rebetika music such as Markos Vamvakaris, Vasilis Tsitsanis, Giorgos Lafkas and Giannis Papaioannou. These composers had risen to fame in the 40s and early 50s but had become sorely neglected and even prosecuted in the much-changed musical landscape of the 1960s. It was from them that Apostolos learned the authentic, traditional rebetika songs, songs borne of poverty, strife and suffering by the refugees of Asia Minor in large Greek urban centers in the 1920s. Apostolos’ idea was to record an album full of these classic, traditional rebetika songs with their original lyrics as intended by their authors. Some of these songs had never been recorded with their original lyrics and all were outlawed in Greece when a military coup took control of the government in 1967.
With NINA Records on board as record label and distributor of the project, the songs were chosen, the musicians were assembled, the arrangements were made…and Apostolos sang lead and backing vocals in a tiny Manhattan studio in the winter of 1972.
The result, 1973’s “Otan Kapnizi O Loulas,” was a remarkable musical accomplishment that generated sales of unprecedented proportions and made Apostolos famous all over the world. The album became a worldwide best-seller as Greek music lovers everywhere lined up in stores as far away as Japan to purchase the album. Many bought 20 and 30 copies each to send to relatives to Greece as gifts. The album was essentially illegal in Greece in the first few years of its release, and many an 8-track copy of “Otan Kapnizi O Loulas” was confiscated by authorities from taxi drivers’ car radios in Athens during 1973 and 1974.
Virtually all the songs on the album were hits and have since become classics: title track “Otan kapnizi o loulas,” “Magkas vgike gia sergiani,” “Otan simvi sta perix,” “Mes tis polis to hamam,” “Ti zoula mou anakalipsan,” “Vadizo ke paramilo.”
Through the release of “Otan Kapnizi O Loulas,” Apostolos proved there was still a big demand for this kind of music, the traditional rebetika. It was a demand that in a way never went away. Furthermore, because of his unique and unparalelled vocal delivery, the songs captured the public’s imagination like no recorded music before it did. Apostolos touched a nerve and at the same time introduced this important part of Greek musical history to an all-new generation of listeners.
Apostolos Nikolaidis was the first artist to record and release these songs at a time when no one else would touch them. He was the first to pay tribute to these unsung heros, the great composers of Greek rebetika music. And in what is perhaps one of most understated realities in the history of recorded Greek music, he opened up the doors for many other contemporary Greek singers and groups to begin recording these types of songs and to begin performing them as an established part of their musical repertoire.
Today, “Otan Kapnizi O Loulas” is considered a classic Greek music album and has sold over three million copies worldwide, not counting the tens of thousands of bootleg copies that have been produced and sold since the album was released.
Following the smash success of “Otan Kapnizi O Loulas,” Apostolos became much in demand. He toured the U.S. and Canada and gave sold-out performances in major cities like Montreal, Toronto, New York, Chicago and Houston to fans who were clamoring to hear live versions of the songs he made so popular.
He followed up “Otan Kapnizi O Loulas” with another classic album of rebetika songs, “O Arhagelos,” recorded in Houston, Texas in 1975, accompanied on bouzouki by Christos Psarros. “O Arhagelos” was the beginning of a long-standing musical partnership between the two. Apostolos’ classic interpretations of songs like “O arhagelos,” “Kato sta lemonadika” and “San pethano sto karavi” became instantly popular and drew legions of fans in nightclubs in New York and across the country.
Fresh from accepting a gold record for sales of “Otan Kapnizi O Loulas” in June 1976, Apostolos released “Ithela Namouna Passas” on his own record label, Marilou Records. This innovative album, a collection of 12 tsiftetelia songs, once again introduced a forgotten kind of Greek music to a wider audience. Some of the most well-known songs on the record included “Ithela na mouna pasas,” “Giala giala s’ agapo” and “Palamakia palamakia.”
Another record of traditional rebetika songs, “Ston Adi Antamosane” (also on the NINA label) followed in 1977. It featured outstanding performances of more classic songs such as “Gia prosexe me vlamissa,” “Sti filaki” and “To 13 to keli.” By this time, Apostolos was the most popular singer in Greek communities around the world. He was particularly popular in New York, where he became a staple of Astoria’s Greek-American entertainment community.
In 1979, Apostolos recorded and released “Ta Dodeka Evagelia T’Apostoli”—a collection of 12 rebetika and laika songs—on Marilou Records. He was accompanied by esteemed bouzouki player Takis Tsakournos. The first song off the album, “To vapori ap’ tin Persia,” was sent to Apostolos to record by the composer of the song himself, Vasilis Tsitsanis. Apostolos also recorded an updated version of his first big 1968 hit in Greece, “Asimorfoti.” Other songs made popular by Apostolos on this album included “Den xanakano filaki” and “Pente hronia dikasmenos.”
After 13 years overseas, Apostolos traveled back to Greece in 1981 in an effort to follow up his big successes in the U.S. with new ones in his native country.
Wanting to break away from his heavy “rebeti” image, Apostolos recorded and released an album of elafra love songs called “Den Hriazonte Logia” in 1982. Apostolos also wrote and/or co-wrote the music on many of the songs. The album did not meet the commercial success Apostolos had hoped for, but it did mark another type of success: through songs like “Ti tragoudi na po,” “In’ i kardia sou san ti thalasa,” “O tsiganos” and “Den ehis perithorio,” Apostolos showed he could sing any type of song, not just the heavy-handed rebetika he had become so well-known for. Apostolos believed a truly great singer should be able to sing any type of song, and with this album he proved he could sing anything.
“Rebetikes Stigmes-Magika Tragoudia” followed in 1983 on the VASIPAP label. Many of the songs on this album (“Dimitroula (Thessalonikia),” “Arhontorembetis,” “Ke mitroo katharo,” “O bakaras,” “To portofoli”) became popular requests during Apostolos’ subsequent live performances and concerts. Kostas Papadopoulos, one of Greece’s most highly-regarded bouzouki players, worked with Apostolos on this album.
In the early 80s and along with the album releases, Apostolos worked in various well-known nightclubs in and around Athens. However, he felt stifled by a lack of integrity and opportunity in the music business at the time. Apostolos returned to New York in the mid-80s and resumed appearances there. He performed his newer material in addition to his older classics. In 1986, he released a collection of laika songs entitled “Na Se Zilevoun Pio Kala”; songs included “Na se zilevoun pio kala,” “Pios to ehi to votani” and “Goustaris gia to akrogiali.”
Apostolos continued to give memorable performances in New York, Toronto, Houston, San Francisco, Vancouver as well as Germany and Australia into the late 80s and early 90s. Apostolos was ceaselessly followed and embraced by his many ardent fans and performed to packed houses every night. His fan base now included many younger fans, who had grown up with Apostolos and counted “Otan Kapnizi O Loulas” among their all-time favorite albums.
In 1991, Apostolos released “Mia Vradia Me Ton Apostoli”, a live album containing material recorded during his legendary apperances at Asteria, a well-known Greek supper club in Astoria, in 1990 and 1991. The album was a success and yielded the hit “Otan horevis to tsifteteli (Horepse, horepse)”, a remake of a song first recorded by Katerina Stanisi. For this achievement, Apostolos was honored with his second gold record in New York in 1993. The album was released in Greece in 1995, and “Otan horevis to tsifteteli" became one of the most commonly played songs on the radio and in nightclubs that year. Spurred on by the success, and as a further established and respected artist, Apostolos decided to return to Greece in the mid 1990s. His goal was to record new material and perform for his fans in his native country.
Although the Greek musical landscape had changed considerably since the 1980s, Apostolos found the general environment much more conducive to recording, performing and promoting his work. He teamed up with Giorgos Manisalis, one of the great composers of elafra songs from the golden age of Greek music, to release “Ti Mou Thimises Tora” in 1996.
Many appearances and live performances on all of the major Greek channels followed, as well as considerable press coverage and a memorable video clip for the title track, “Ti mou thimises tora.” Other popular songs included “Na me agapas” and “Ise esi ise esi.”
In 1997, hot on the heels of “Ti Mou Thimises Tora”, Apostolos released “Na Haro Magkia,” another collaboration with Manisalis. The title track, “Na haro magkia,” was another hit for Apostolos, as was “Ta thelo ta thelo.” The video clip for “Na haro magkia” aired continuously on various Greek TV stations.
With the release of these albums, Apostolos returned to the contemporary music scene in Greece as a force to be reckoned with, having established himself as an “old school” singing great and a respected international performer who at the same time was perfectly comfortable creating and performing in the popular Greek music circuit of the 1990s.
Along with the two new album releases, Apostolos performed in clubs and concerts in Thessaloniki to standing-room only audiences. In countless interviews on TV and on the radio, he promoted his work and answered questions about his past, present and future with a candor and directness that was entirely his. Apostolos also gave special concerts throughout northern Greece, Cyprus and in New York during this time.
In 1998, Apostolos recorded and released “Magkia mou pou ’me PAOKtzis,” a 2-track ode to a Thessaloniki soccer team. The songs were met with great enthusiasm from the fans of the team. In April 1999, Apostolos released “Allagi Frouras,” a collection of elafra and laika tragoudia with a decidedly contemporary feel. With “Allagi Frouras,” Apostolos proved once again he could sing any kind of song. Outstanding tracks included the title track, “Ena sakidio,” and "Mesa se mia nihta,” Apostolos’ modern remake of a classic Manisalis song.
In 1999, Apostolos Nikolaidis seemed poised for even further greatness. He was already well-known throughout the Greek-speaking world through his classic rebetika albums. He had had a long and successful career in Canada and the United States, a land he loved greatly and was proud to have lived and worked in. And after more than 25 collective years away from his native country, he was flourishing in Greece as an established popular recording artist.
Apostolos’ plans for 1999 and the new millennium included a new, long-term engagement at a popular Athens nightclub, much more new material, as well as a live recording of all the classic rebetika songs for which he had become famous.
Unfortunately, Apostolos passed away unexpectedly in April of 1999 and was not allowed to realize those goals. But Apostolos Nikolaidis lives on. He lives on through his images, interviews, videos and appearances, and he lives on through the moments of joy he brought and still brings his multitude of fans with his remarkable voice and wonderful body of work. Perhaps most importantly, Apostolos Nikolaidis lives on through the indelible mark he made on the world of Greek music. It is a mark that can never be forgotten or erased.