For more than half a century, the voice of Sotiria Bellou defined the rebetiko tragoudi (song), the Greek musical style often referred to as the "Greek blues." The most enduring of a small group of women singers who began performing during the 1940's, she was a national artistic institution on a par with Maria Callas. She was a living legend, adored for her powerful singing and admired by many for an uncompromising if notorious lifestyle that made no secret of her passion for gambling and love of women.
The oldest child of greengrocers Kyriako and Eleni Bellou, Sotiria was
born in Drosia (formerly Halia) a village near Halkida. Her brief unhappy
marriage at the age of seventeen ended disastrously. After months of abuse,
she finally attacked her violent husband. She was tried and
sentenced to a three-and-a-half-year prison term, four months of which
she actually served. Facing continuous ill treatment at home on her release,
she took charge of her fate on the October 28. 1940, the day that Greece
refused to acquiesce to Italian occupation and, with little more than the
clothes on her back, she took the train to Athens, never looking back as
Greece entered into the war years of the 1940's.
Before her discovery by the late composer Vassilis Tsitsanis in 1945,
Sotiria Bellou spent the starvation years of the German Occupation (1941-1944)
doing every imaginable job - selling sweets and cigarettes, portering at
train stations, washing dishes. In 1947, she made the first of many successful
78 r.p.m recordings of Tsitsanis' songs. Perhaps the most famous of all
of these is the moving "Cloudy Sunday," composed during the bleak Occupation
years. Immortalized by Sotiria and the unforgettable Prodromos Tsaousakis,
this is almost a second Greek national anthem. At the same time, Sotiria
took part in the Resistance, selling the outlawed Communist newspaper Rizospastis.
She was beaten and imprisoned more than once by the Germans for this and
other infractions. She also saw action in the fighting during the infamous "Days of December"
A turning point in her nascent career came in 1948 when she came to
the attention of the smart bohemian set that began to frequent a cabaret named "Fat Jimmy's" where she was appearing with Tsitsanis. This group included the young Manos
Hatzidakis, a trained composer who produced many popular songs
over his long career. In a famous lecture of 1948, he argued for the artistic
merit of the rebetiko. Although she did not sing the songs of Hatzidakis,
the attention that was focused on her at the time, together with the quality
of her singing, her personal charm and bold lifestyle, earned her a life-long
reputation with a more sophisticated audience than other singers of her
generation managed to capture. This did not, however, gain her entry into
their recording studios until much later.
The career of Sotiria and other exponents of the rebetiko temporarily
waned however, as musical fashions changed from the mid-1950's to the late-1960's.
The times demanded glamor, something that Sotiria could never aspired to.
As she often recalled, she was reduced to selling cassettes on the street
to earn a living. During the repressive years of the Junta, however, a
new generation, particularly students and record collectors, rediscovered
their musical roots. While many people remained fans of Sotiria, it took
this revivalist interest to reactivate wider interest in the rebetiko and
older performers who were now appreciated as being authentic and "pure."
In 1966 Sotiria began a series of definitive recordings on the Lyra
label. In 1975 she entered yet another highly successful phase in her career
when she began working with a number of leading composers such as
Dionysos Savvopulos. She claimed a place in Greek song that she might have
had much earlier, if the music business relied on quality alone. She continued
to sing regularly in nightspots, including the renowned "Harama" with Tsistsanis
until his death in1984. Her last public season was in 1993-1994.
Her life had become a model of social defiance by the mid-1950's. She
lived as she liked, openly adopting a masculine style in dress and demeanor.
While never explicitly identified as a Lesbian, she never pretended to be anything
other. Her severe style added to the "serious" and "respectful" appearance
she was noted for during her entire professional life. While other singers stood
up to sing, a mark of a more modern, "sexier" performance style, Sotiria
remained seated among the musicians, in the traditional singer's place,
with a cigarette in her hand as she sang. With her short hair slicked back,
her simple shirts and skirts, she didn�t hesitate to openly charm women
with her dazzling smile and dark eyes. With very few exceptions, she was
accepted by her colleagues and admired by audiences of all classes. For many Sotiria Bellou embodied the
freedom that most people could not or would not allow themselves.
During her illness, she often complained to the Greek press that she was alone and impoverished, forgotten by friends and colleagues. While it is true that she suffered fools lightly, she was extraordinarily generous with friends and often helped younger musicians. Despite the fact that she could be "difficult," those who loved her usually forgave her. Her financial straits were not unconnected to her passion for gambling, particularly the secret dice games she frequented. Indeed, as she herself admitted, over the years she had lost several fortunes. The Greek government provided her some financial relief and bore a large part of her medical expenses. The State funeral with which Sotiria Bellou was honored on Friday, August 29 1997, was a tribute to her lifetime of song.