Sotiria Bellou, singer, died in Piraeus on August 27, 1997 aged 76. She was born in Halkida, Greece on August 22, 1921
For more than half a century, the voice of Sotiria Bellou defined the rebetiko tragoudi, 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 with vitriol. She was tried and sentenced to a three-and-a-half-year prison term, four months of which she actually served. Facing continuos 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. Immortalised 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 infamous ‘Days of December’ in 1944.

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 ‘Fat Jimmy’s’ where she was appearing with Tsitsanis. This group included the young Manos Hatzidakis, a trained composer who produced many ‘artistic’ 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 glamour, something that Sotiria could never have pretended. 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 ‘art’ 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 demeanour. While never explicitly ‘out’ as a Lesbian, she never pretended to be anything other. Her severe style added to the ‘serious’ and ‘respectful’ appearance she was noted for all her 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, not just liberal bohemians and leftists. 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 had brought her some financial relief and bore a large part of her recent medical expenses. The State funeral with which Sotiria Bellou was honoured on Friday August 29 1997 was a tribute to her lifetime of song.

With her in her last days was close friend Georgia Panayiotou.
 29/8/1997 copyright D. Mueller

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