When I think of the Armenian icon Guy Chookoorian, I immediately think of these words which describe this Armenian singer, musician and actor. Sadly, he passed away on January 31st at the age of 97. “He had an amazingly full life and illustrious career entertaining his audiences with his music and humor,” said his son Arshag Chookoorian, also musical partner for over 40 years.
Gaidzog (Guy) Chookoorian was born on November 15, 1923 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. At the age of 12, his family moved to Fresno where his father Roupen, an amateur musician, worked by day as a shoemaker in his own shop. On the side, Roupen would also write short stories which would appear in various Armenian newspapers.
Many would identify with Guy’s upbringing, as he grew up hearing Armenian music throughout his home. His father played the oud/violin and wrote Armenian lyrics. Watching his father perform no doubt instilled a passion for music in his heart, inspiring him to begin playing the oud at a youthful age. He had vivid memories of holding the instrument and picking at the strings. But the harmonica was the first instrument Guy picked up to learn Armenian music. Truly a self-taught musician, he would learn several instruments throughout his lifetime including oud, bouzouki, guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele and many others. “If it had strings on it, he could play it,” said his son.
The tradition of having Armenian music permeate his childhood carried on when Guy started to raise his own family with his wife Louise. He taught his son Arshag how to play the dumbeg at seven years old; eventually, he would play gigs with his father. Guy’s daughter Araxie would also eventually join the band as a singer and keyboardist. Guy and Louise also served as choir director and organist, respectively, at their local Armenian church for over 50 years. Teaching and sharing their love of music was important to them.
Being on stage was always in Guy’s blood. As a youngster in junior high school, he partnered with a schoolmate for a double act performing music and telling jokes. He also appeared on a local Fresno radio program with a classmate to perform cowboy music and comedy routines on a regular basis.
A remarkable World War II veteran, Guy enlisted (not drafted) in the US Army Air Corp and flew over 30 bombing missions as a radio operator-gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters as well as other awards for his service. It is also believed that he was one of the few American airmen to shoot down a German ME-163, a rocket-propelled warplane.
After the war, Guy was focused on pursuing an acting career. A handsome man in his youth as well as a distinguished looking gentleman as he aged, he left Fresno for Hollywood. Guy was successful on stage in a number of different productions. While acting, Guy also formed his first ensemble and performed for both Armenian and American weddings and parties throughout California.
To the Armenian community, he was probably best known for his novelty songs. Taking popular American tunes and putting Armenian words was his trademark. The rhythm and blues/novelty song “Open the Door, Richard” was a hit (top of Billboard charts) in 1946. Guy was given the idea if he recorded this in Armenian, it would be a great stunt that would attract attention. He recorded his version called “Toore’ Pats, Dikran,” and he sold thousands of copies. Realizing what a hit this record became, Guy would go on to record more novelty songs such as “Choriner” (Mule Train), “Davit Amoo” (The Ballad of Davy Crockett) and “Yegoor Eem Doonus” (Come on-a My House). Interestingly enough, when Guy went to obtain permission from the publisher of Come on-a My House, he was told he needed to meet the composers of the song so they could hear Guy’s version, something rare even by today’s standards. Guy was introduced to both William Saroyan and Ross Bagdasarian. He sang the song for them, and they were impressed and even wanted to form a partnership to record more songs. But after a falling out between Saroyan and Bagdasarian, this never happened.
All recorded on his record label Lightning Records, these 78rpm records would make Guy an Armenian household name. From the late 1940s to the early 2000s, Guy would produce collections of his music. This is how I actually came to meet Guy back in 1999 as he had just re-released some of his favorite songs on CD called “Guy Chookoorian Does The Apple Tree Song and other hits.” When we spoke, he was charismatic and youthful…excited to talk about his collection that I was more than happy to help distribute for him.
In the early 1960s, Guy would enter the Middle Eastern nightclub scene performing in supper clubs with belly dancers. His first engagement was in Las Vegas where he shared the stage with icons Harry James, Fats Domino and many more. Guy’s audience was growing.
He also formed The Barites, a popular Armenian folk band with Peter Chorebanian, Dick Agajanian, Jimmy Haboian and others. Over the years he would work with many well-known Armenian musicians from around California including Richard Hagopian, John Bilezikjian, Jack Chalikian and others. Performing Armenian music is an important way to help preserve the history of our rich songs, but Guy took it one step further. In 1952 he was commissioned to record a series of songs from Yerzinga, located in historic Armenia. These were songs that his father performed and sang; both father and son documented the lyrics for future generations. These recordings even came with a booklet that Roupen wrote in order to teach the specific dances from this region.
There wasn’t a segment of the entertainment business that Guy didn’t leave a lasting impression on. From radio and television to theater and motion pictures, his credits are numerous with over 80 appearances including The Lucy Show, Charlie’s Angels, Lou Grant and The Love Boat.
He was a true entertainer who indeed lived a full life. Even though the generation who marveled at his success and adored his music is diminishing, his recordings live on through the efforts of his children. Besides, we can never forget his voice yelling out “Choriner”!
This is a reprint of a story I originally wrote for the Armenian Weekly. I often reissue the story in Hye Times with additional video and audio links whenever possible.