Jick Nacassian (Χατζίκ ‘Τζίκ’ Νακασιάν)Born: May 15th, 1951, Athens (Greece)
As his mother’s dad had been a dentist, she wanted Jick to study dentistry, but he was reluctant. When he finished his high school studies (1969), he bought himself several music theory books and started studying on his own frantically. After the holidays, he reported at the Costas Clavvas Music School in Nikis Street, Athens. Clavvas was Greece’s most sought-after studio arranger for popular music in the 1960s and early 1970s. “I wanted to go to the Berklee School of Music in America to study arranging”, Jick explains. “I hoped I would be taught the theoretical basics at Clavvas’ institute. When he found out what I had learnt simply by studying books, he was amazed. “It is impossible that you have done that”, he exclaimed. He then gave me to an old teacher, Mr Papadimitriou. All the while, my parents were unaware of the courses I was taking. After just over six months of lessons, this man convinced my parents that I was very talented and that they should support me in my ambition of becoming a musician.”
His parents agreed to help him financially, though they did not have the means to allow him to realize his dream of going to America. Instead, Jick studied composition and dictation privately with Clelia Terzakis, whilst he completed the harmony course at the National Conservatory (Athens) with teacher Leon Zoras within a year, picking up a first prize (1971). During his twenty-seven months of military service, which he spent in the navy (1971-’73), he was given a scholarship to continue his studies at the Athens Conservatory, where he took courses in counterpoint with Menelaus Pallantios and orchestration with Constantinos Kydoniatis. After having obtained his diplomas in both subjects (1974), he started taking fugue lessons, but had to discontinue these in 1975 due to a lack of money. That same year, he also took a one-month private conducting course.
“I was very focused”, Jick says of his conservatory days. “I wanted to get the classical education just to be able to write my pop songs in a classical way. I was never really interested in classical music or even jazz. God forgive me, but I never liked laïko, Greek bouzouki music, either. I admire ancient Greek culture, but, to me, Greek popular music has been infected by four-hundred years of Turkish oppression. To my mind, however, Greece still is a Western country and I have always wanted my songs to reflect that. The songs I composed as a student were pop, rock, rhythm & blues… a mix of these three styles, with Greek lyrics which I penned myself. My prime example as a composer has always been Burt Bacharach. I studied like a madman and had almost completed the counterpoint and arranging courses by the time I got out of the army. As a marine, I hardly had to perform military duties. As soon as it was found out I had a good singing voice, I was included in the navy band. Believe it or not, I was the only band member able to read music, so the task of writing the arrangements soon fell to me as well, which was a valuable part of my learning curve. As a singer, I was sent on a tour around all naval bases in the Aegean to entertain the troops.”
In the next couple of years, Nacassian’s fledgling career in Greek’s pop music business was closely tied to the Salonica (Thessaloniki) Song Festival, at that time by far the most popular music festival of the country. In 1974, his composition ‘Irth’i vrochi’, interpreted by Irini Raïcou, was chosen amongst the twenty songs for that year’s competition. The following year, another of his creations, ‘Se paracalo’, was performed by Elpida and came fourth. He finally made a name for himself as one of the country’s new top studio musicians by winning a first prize in arranging in two successive Salonica festivals: in 1977 with ‘Mia glykia mousiki’, composed and performed by Stelios Tsamados, and in 1978 with ‘Gia na grafi ena tragoudi’ composed by Giannis Piliouris and performed by Lia Vissi.
When asked about the Salonica Festival, Jick says: “These were the days when the festival was still widely respected in Greece. The best of composers and performers competed. As for my first song, ‘Irth’i vrochi’, I had already written it in 1970. Of course, I was thrilled when it was selected amongst the twenty songs of the ’74 festival, but I was a nobody and I did not get to conduct it. The chief conductor, Costas Capnissis, took care of that. During one of the rehearsals, the first trumpeter of the orchestra stood up and asked Capnissis: “Who wrote this arrangement?” I was in the back of the hall and, though slightly intimidated, stood up and raised my hand. “Congratulations”, the trumpet player said to me. “It is one of the best in the competition, if not the best!” Though my song was not picked for the final night, these compliments encouraged me to persevere. When Elpida came fourth with my song ‘Se paracalo’ in 1975, it came as a disappointment to me. I felt I had been tricked out of victory through some dirty machinations. Therefore, I decided never to submit a composition of my own to the Salonica Festival ever again. The 1977 prize for best arrangement of the year came as a surprise. I was there conducting just one song. I think Costas Clavvas had nine! That one song propelled me to the top of the music industry and made me one of the most asked studio arrangers of the country.”
“Despite these successes”, Nacassian continues, “it was not easy to make a living initially. Even when I became known in the record business and signed my first deal with Phonogram in ’75, there was never enough money. In 1975, I performed in a nightclub in Salonica for a while, singing my songs in five languages. One year later, I was lucky to get in touch with Manos Hatzidakis, who was a programme director at Greek radio at that time. When he saw one of my musical scores, he commissioned me to start writing arrangements for the ERT Variety Music Orchestra. Of course I was honoured… I would say Hatzidakis is amongst the best composers Greece has had since the war – Mimis Plessas is another. From ’78 onwards, at the request of the orchestra’s musicians, I conducted this ensemble regularly as a guest as well. The year 1978 finally saw an improvement in my living conditions, as more and more arranging commissions came my way and I was employed at the Notourno nightclub in Salonica. Working in such clubs is the best way to make a living for a musician in Greece. Between 1979 and 1981, I was the pianist and musical director at another big club, Nea Deilina in Athens, having a band of fifteen musicians to my disposal.”
Between 1975 and 1981, Nacassian worked as a studio arranger with some of Greece’s biggest pop stars of the day, such as Tania Tsanaclidou, Manolis Mitsias, George Coinousis, Giannis Vogiatzis, Philippus Nicolaou, and Michael Calogiannis. Meanwhile continuing his activities as a songwriter, his compositions were recorded by the likes of Aleca Canellidou, Bessy Argyraki, Paschalis, Terris Chrysos, Elpida, and Lakis Giordanelli. Meanwhile, he took part in many song festivals in Greece and abroad, conducting several of his arrangements in the Salonica Festival editions of 1979, 1980, and 1981, arranging the song with which Costas Tournas took part in a festival in Tokyo, and writing scores for music manifestations in Austria and Corfu at the request of radio chief Manos Hatzidakis. In 1980, Nacassian’s song ‘Autostop’ was the Greek representation at the Eurovision Song Contest (see below), whilst he also composed ‘Tu t’en vas’, which took part in the Rose d’Or Festival held in Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium that same year. “Honestly, that Rose d’Or Festival was a disaster”, Jick laughs. “The French conductor who took care of all entries ruined it with a musically indifferent arrangement. That was the moment I told myself never to have one of my compositions arranged by some other musician.”
In the aftermath of his Eurovision participation, which brought about some hostile press attention in Greece, Jick decided to try his luck in America. Between November 1981 and March 1982, and then again between April and August 1983, he lived in New York, trying to sell his compositions to American producers. Meanwhile, he took a short course of film music at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Jick: “My plan was to conquer the US market as a songwriter. During my first stay, some companies expressed their interest, but in the end it came to nothing. I went back to Athens for a year, writing new material for a second try in ’83. I worked for two production companies and one publisher believed one of my compositions would be a guaranteed hit. As these two companies failed to financially support my stay in America, however, I decided to come back to Greece after a long, frustrating summer. When I left New York, I had tears in my eyes, because I knew I would not come back. I would have loved to stay longer in Berklee, but I lacked the means to do so.”
After his return to Greece, Nacassian took up his old professional activities. Firstly, he returned to the record studio, especially working on a lot of productions for the Lyra record company. Between 1984 and 2002, he wrote countless pop arrangements, teaming up with the likes of Margarita Zorbala, Dionysis Savvopoulos, Giannis Poulopoulos, and George Margaratis. With Aphroditi Manou, he recorded the much-acclaimed LP ‘Nychterini diadromi’ (1984), whilst he also arranged the record ‘Spaghetti alla Ellinica’, with Greek versions of Italian pop songs sung by Bessy Argyraki, Takis Antoniadis, and Giannis Vogiatzis (1990). Moreover, between 1987 and 1997, Nacassian conducted in eight more editions of the Salonica Festival, being the contest’s chief conductor on one occasion (1992) and bringing the total of his participations as a conductor to sixteen. Meanwhile, in the 1980s and 1990s, he worked as a piano entertainer, arranger, and musical director in several nightclubs in Athens and Salonica, finally opening his own music club in Athens, ‘Metavasi’, which he ran from 1998 to 2002.
In the world of theatre, Nacassian made his mark by composing the music to three plays, ‘George Dantin’, ‘Ypiretis duo aphentadon’, and ‘To epangelma tis Kyrias Warren’, whilst he penned the music to the TV adaptation of the children’s play ‘Annie’ as well. Moreover, between 1984 and 1990, he composed, arranged, and conducted hundreds of instrumentals for the ERT Variety Music Orchestra, which were broadcast on nationwide radio. In 1992, he composed a new signature tune for Greece’s air forces, ‘Eimaste aeroporoi’, which has been on the repertoire of the army bands since. Between 1992 and 1997, Nacassian worked as a teacher of orchestration at several music schools, including the National Conservatory.
In 2002, Jick made a radical decision: he stopped working as a studio arranger once and for all, instead creating a home-studio and focusing on songwriting. “I was tired of being the sound decorator of other people’s music”, he explains. “With the arrival of computers and samplers, the metier of orchestrator has more or less been turned obsolete anyway. It is sad, but true. To me, the time had come to focus on my own songwriting again. I had always continued writing songs, but very few of these were recorded. I refuse to write in the laïko style, with bouzoukis. That is the kind of music that is successful in Greece and I could have had many hits, but I would have felt fake. After a particular sloppy recording by Giannis Poulopoulos of one of my songs, I vowed never to give away any composition to another singer… and I thought: why not make a record of my own? I had performed as a singer during my days in the navy and producers in Greece and America believed in my vocal abilities. I did not listen to them back then, because, to my mind, it would be impossible to combine careers as an arranger and a singer. Now, I decided to give it a go.”
Dedicating himself to his album project for almost ten years, Jick composed dozens of songs, which he whittled down to fifteen. Finally, in 2011, the first solo album of his career, ‘Chronia asiderota’, saw the daylight. Jick: “With the record companies, like the rest of Greece, being in a profound crisis, there was no opportunity to promote the CD, but I am proud of the result. I recorded almost all of the instruments and vocals myself. It is not a commercial album in the Greek sense of the word… no bouzoukis! It is singer-songwriter pop in a Western style, but with Greek lyrics. It received no radio airplay, as we would have had to pay for that, but at least I am offering the audience something from my heart without having had to go through the misery of writing cheap music, hoping for an ephemeral chart success.”
Though marred by health problems, Nacassian is still full of plans. “Many colleagues of mine, composers, have stopped writing songs in recent years, because there has been no money in the business anymore since the arrival of the economic crisis. I am not like them… I am not in it for the money. Therefore, I am still continuing writing songs, because I am still energetic and ambitious to write the best song of my life. I want to release a second album of my material. After that, I would like to publish some of my own compositions arranged for a large orchestra conducted by myself. Moreover, I would like to do something for the Armenians. In 2015, it will be the hundredth year of the genocide they had to suffer at the hands of the Turks. Would not it be suitable to commemorate the victims of this tragedy by doing something…?”
Jick Nacassian in the Eurovision Song Contest
“I had been trying in vain to get into the Greek pre-selection with my compositions in the two previous years”, he recalls. “In 1979, which was a particularly good year for me as a studio arranger and conductor in the Nea Deilina nightclub, I was the young and coming man of the Greek music business. Somewhere during that year, while at work in Nea Deilina, I was approached by an older man, who said he was a lyricist and introduced himself as Thanos Sophos. He had the idea of writing a song about hitchhiking for Eurovision and suggested that I should compose a melody and let him add the lyrics to it. It certainly was an original idea and I wrote the song. To be honest, Thanos’ lyrics were quite weak. After having asked him if it was OK to him if I changed some parts, he assured me that he had no objections to that. Afterwards, he gave the credits of the song’s lyrics to his wife, Rony Sophou, who I did not know at all. I do not have a clue why Thanos preferred her name to be next to mine in the songwriting credits instead of his.”
“Meanwhile”, Nacassian continues, “an influential producer and publisher at the EMI record company, George Petsilas, had commissioned me to write three songs to be submitted for the Eurovision selection here in Greece. He gave me a huge budget, which I decided to spend wholly on this one song, ‘Autostop’. Petsilas was very angry at me for spending that much money, but I explained him I believed in that song. Anna Vissi was already an established artist by the time of this Eurovision project. She had won the Salonica Festival in 1977, was young and beautiful, and much in demand. I had worked with her in the Nea Deilina club. She never really gave me the idea she believed in ‘Autostop’. “My record company told me to sing this song”, she said to me. I did not like that answer, but I was young and naïve. Perhaps I should have given the song to somebody else, but what did I know at that time…?”
‘Autostop’ was picked as one of the twelve songs of the Greek pre-selection show, held in the ERT studios in Peania. The orchestrations to all entries were conducted by ERT’s staff conductor, Lefteris Chalkiadakis. Anna Vissi won the competition, with a narrow margin of just five points to number two, Costas Tournas & Epicouroi with ‘UFO’. “I was slightly disappointed not being able to conduct my own song”, Nacassian remembers, “but we won, so I did not complain. After all, I knew I would get to conduct the song in the international festival! Many years later, shortly before he passed away, Lefteris Chalkiadakis told me he regretted not having allowed me to conduct ‘Autostop’ during the reprise at the end of the national final show. To be honest, I had forgotten all about that, but it was a gentle thing to say of him anyway! I was given little opportunity to enjoy victory. The song was really badly received by Greek press, who thought it unfit to represent our country. Moreover, I was consciously misquoted by one journalist, who asked me what I thought of the quality of the programme in general. I told him that the orchestra was good, but that the sound mix left something to be desired. Next morning in the paper, I was quoted as having said that the orchestra had been no good. The musicians were livid at me for something I never said!”
In the aftermath of the Greek final, another nasty incident took place. Nacassian: “The morning after the show, Anna Vissi was given the opportunity to perform the song live on nationwide radio with an orchestra conducted by me. Due to another technical mistake, however, Anna’s voice could not be heard by radio listeners for the first one and a half minute of the performance. I begged the radio production team to allow us to have another go at the end of the morning show and I finally got my way. When the time had come for our second try, Anna was gone… to do her hair. You can imagine how I felt. At Anna’s suggestion, we took the Epicouroi, the backing group of Costas Tournas who had come second behind her, on board for the studio recording and the international contest. Initially, the three group members of Epicouroi tried to sing their own vocals instead of reading the notes I had written out for them. After I corrected them, they did a good job on the song – and they did an OK job at the contest in The Hague as well.”
At the advice of his lyricist Thanos Sophos, Nacassian kept the publishing rights of ‘Autostop’ to himself. “The usual road would have been to have allowed producer George Petsilas to publish the song”, Jick explains, “but immediately after we won the Greek final, Thanos Sophos approached me, begging me not to give the rights to Petsilas. I decided to listen to Thanos, even more so when he promised me to come along to The Hague to sell the song ourselves to the international publishers gathered at the Eurovision Song Contest. We would market the song together: it seemed like a good idea! One day before we would leave for the Netherlands, Thanos came to my house limping. He had broken his leg! “I am sorry, I cannot walk… I had an accident and I cannot come along with you”, he exclaimed. When telling you the story now, it is kind of comical, but at that time it was a disaster. In practice, it meant I would be left to my own devices at the contest without any help from others. In the end, I managed to sell it to Ralph Siegel from West Germany, who tricked me by just buying ‘Autostop’ and not the B side. That cost me a lot of money. Siegel gave the song to Wenche Myhre, who recorded a German version.”
What does Nacassian remember of his time in The Hague? “Honestly, it was very stressful. Anna Vissi gave me a hard time by demanding changes in the arrangement. It was too high, or too low… I do not remember. At her request, I adapted the score three times. In between rehearsals, I was constantly trying to attract attention for the song with publishers, but I hardly knew how to go about. Remember, I was just a twenty-eight year old kid. This situation was too much! To add insult to injury, the drummer of the Dutch orchestra was drunk on the night of the concert. In the second part of the song, he took the tempo too fast, though I tried to correct him with my gestures, but to no avail – this was a case of the conductor chasing the drummer instead of the other way ‘round, as it should be.”
“No, this Eurovision experience was not a happy episode in my career”, Jick admits. “Just negative memories... Anna Vissi never whole-heartedly supported the song to the outside world. After we came thirteenth, she explained the disappointing score to Greek journalists by saying: “What can I do? This is the song they gave me and that is why I got this result.” In other words, she blamed me, which was a very mean thing to do. Therefore, I have never worked with her again. I still cannot bear watching her perform on television. Another bad thing was that ERT never paid me for my three different arrangements to this song. Any arranger who has his material used for a radio or television broadcast earns a certain amount of money, but they did not give me that in this case. Just because I worked for the radio as an arranger at that time and depended on this income, I did not complain or explicitly ask for it.”
“In the end, ‘Autostop’ was the reason I left for America in 1981. Due to the incorrect quote of me about the quality of the orchestra and the sound technique in the Greek national final, the musicians refused to come to studio sessions which were conducted by me. They simply boycotted me! At that time, this meant the end of my career in the studio business. I was more or less forced to try making it in another country. It was not until 1984, when I had returned to Greece, that everything seemed to have been forgiven and I could take up my activities in the record studio and with ERT radio again. And all of this because of a little song which is not among the hundred best pop songs I wrote in my life… a below average song, I would say. Nonetheless, I still believe ERT needed this kind of song and, anyway, it was voted the winner in a selection which, originally, consisted of nearly four-hundred songs which were submitted…”
Eight years after the ‘Autostop’ episode, in 1988, Jick Nacassian was involved in the Greek pre-selection again – not as a songwriter, but as an arranger and conductor. In the national final, held in Piraeus’ Municipal Theatre, the eight participating songs were shared on an equal basis amongst two arrangers; Nacassian conducted four, whilst the other four were given to Charis Andreadis. The four entries arranged by Nacassian were: ‘Ah, ourane’ by Giannis Dimitras & Evdokia, ‘Gia sena mono zo’ by George Melekis & Electra, ‘To iremistico’ by Christos Callow, and ‘Hic’ by Angeliki Bazigou. The last-mentioned title, a peculiar song with lyrics about having the hiccups, came second behind the eventual winner, Afroditi Fryda and ‘Clown’. As ‘Clown’ had been arranged and conducted by Andreadis, he went on to represent Greece as a conductor in the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin.
Nacassian’s third and last involvement in the world of Eurovision came in 1991, when he surprisingly participated as an interpreter in the Greek pre-selection, performing his own composition ‘Paratiro’. “This was not only my composition, but I wrote the lyrics to it as well… lyrics about the Gulf War! Once I learnt it had been admitted to the national final, I offered it to Christos Dantis and to Paschalis, but they turned me down without even listening to the song. Therefore, I did it myself all dressed in white, seated at a white piano. It was a strong song and I remember that, after my performance, I was applauded by almost all other contestants backstage. I have to admit, though, that the winner, ‘Anixi’ by Sophia Vossou, was very strong, too.”
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