My name is George and I never sing
about the bitter-sweet issue of love
I’m not used in rending daisies,
I don’t wait for anyone’s comeback
These are the lyrics to Me Lene Giorgo, a song that George Righellis made very popular amongst the Armenian and Greek communities from the New England area to Detroit to California. It is probably the one song that I identify and think of whenever I hear or speak of guitarist George Righellis.
Toward the end of 2018, the musical world said goodbye to George who passed away after a lengthy and heroic battle against cancer. Even knowing his ultimate fate, he was still sharing his love of music with the world and connecting with the online community posting vintage photos and live music tracks from his musical heyday. He outlived the medical expectations by several months allowing George to not only share his music but to be appreciated for the years he dedicated to playing Armenian, Greek and Middle Eastern music. Less than a month prior to his death, George even met an admirer from Greece, the talented Greek kanunist and vocalist Manos Koutsangelidis. George was so touched by his playing that one of the last posts he made on Facebook was to Manos. “Manos I miss you already. You are one of the best musicians I have ever played with and hope to be with you again on stage…”
“George Righellis was full of life, and full of music. He always light up the room whenever he performed. He loved both Greek and Armenian music, but told me once in an interview that he always gravitated more toward Armenian music. He was such an inspiration to so many of us, and he will be very much missed.” said Meleti Pouliopoulos, Historian for Greek Cultural Resources.
By right, George should be credited for being one of the first guitarists to introduce the instrument to Middle Eastern music. The guitar along with the dumbeg or drums provided a “wall of sound” of rhythm for the other musicians and gave it the “kef” (party) sounds we have all grown to love.
I talked to a few musicians that knew George very well and had performed with him and they had this to say about him:
“I have had many occasions to play music with George. All of them fun filled and musically rewarding. But although from Massachusetts, George represented a special place in the music of the New York City area as well, unbeknownst to him personally. George was the first musician that I heard using the guitar in our Armenian music back in the early 60s. I loved the sound that was created by the threesome Harry, Gary and George. (Harry Minassian, Gary Alexanian and George Righellis) in New England kef music. In 1962, and for the first time in New York, I started using the guitar in my group and in Armenian music. So the sound that George influenced in New England acted as a catalyst for me and for Armenian music in New York”. – John Berberian, Armenian oudist
“I first met George around 1970 — Eddie Mekjian produced two albums: Road to Harpoot and Greece after Sunset featuring George. I heard those albums and I was fascinated with the fullness of his guitar. Why was it so full from an acoustic guitar? The recording on that album stood out tremendously with the sound of George. I think he was the best guitarist for Armenian music and he blended perfectly with the bands. George was the first to introduce the guitar to Armenian music. The Armenian bands starting using guitar back in the 1950s by hiring Greek musicians. That’s why a lot of Armenian musicians have a extensive Greek repertoire in there material. The legacy George left is that he inspired a lot of the younger Armenian guitar players such as myself. I would copy every run and chord changes that he would do in a particular piece. I started playing with George at the Athenian Corner Restaurant in
Lowell , MA. He had his D28 Martin Guitar plugged into a B12X Ampeg Portoflex amplifier, and he sounded like he did on the records. A lot of his material he learned from his uncle Kostas Kamanis a great oud player and entertainer. He idolized him tremendously. They played every Sunday afternoon at the Averof Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts”. – Mal Barsamian, Armenian musical (clarinet, oud, sax, guitar) virtuoso
Discography of George Righellis
Music of the Bedouin Bandits – Fuad Hassan Ensemble (RCA Victor LSP-1991) (1959)
Near East Enchantments – Harry Minassian (Mark Records)
Interlude with The Orientals (Soundcraft Associates SA-242)
Next Stop… Near East – George Chakoian’s New England Ararat Orchestra
Kef Time Hartford (Saha Records)
Crossroads with the Vanites Band (Worcester/Whitinsville Armenian Band)
Harpoot to Istanbul – Eddie Mekjian and Ensemble (NILE NLPS-1003)
Greece After Sunset – George Righellis (NILE NLPS-1004)(1971)
The Seventh Veil -Eddie Mekjian and Ensemble (Fiesta FLPS-1599)
HOSSEH! – Richie Berberian Ensemble (IAN Records)
Special thanks to Meleti, Mal and John for their contributions to this tribute story.