Mimis Plessas (Μίμης Πλέσσας)

Born: October 12th, 1924, Athens (Greece)
Nationality: Greek

Eurovision record
Famous Greek composer and jazz pianist Mimis Plessas participated in one edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, in Munich in 1983. That year’s Greek entry ‘Mou les’ was composed by Mimis’ son Antonis, who had asked his father to write the arrangement to it and conduct the orchestra. ‘Mou les’ was performed by Christie Stasinopoulou and finished fourteenth amongst twenty competing entries.

Biography
Dimitris ‘Mimis’ Plessas, nicknamed ‘The Greek Gershwin’, learnt to play the piano when he was six years old. In 1939, he started working for Greek national radio as a piano soloist, although he did not read music at that time. He continued to work as a piano accompanist in radio broadcasts after the Second World War, which enabled him to finance his chemistry studies at the University of Athens, where he graduated in 1949. Meanwhile, Plessas, inspired by the wave of jazz music which had engulfed many parts of Europe upon its liberation from German occupation by the Americans and Canadians, had formed his Mimis Plessas Jazz Quartet (1946), which originally consisted of Michael Iconomou (electric guitar), Costas Seitanidis (bass), Igor Raniels (drums), and of course Plessas himself (piano).

Between 1949 and 1952, Plessas lived in the United States of America, working on his Ph.D. thesis on the myelin protein at Cornell University, New York. In 1951, he won a piano contest held at the University of Minnesota; first prize was a scholarship to study the piano under the aegis of professional teachers, but he refused, preferring instead to keep focussing on his thesis. This, however, did not impede him to occasionally perform in jazz clubs with the likes of Harry James and saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins.

Upon his return in Greece (1952), Plessas composed his first song, symbolically entitled ‘Thelo pote na min chorisoume’ (I never want us to be separated). When this proved a success, he decided to abandon his academic career to focus on music professionally. From the 1950s onwards, he wrote countless songs in the laïkó style, i.e. typically Greek popular music, for artists such as Tolis Voscopoulos, Dimitra Galani, Tzeni Vanou, George Dalaras, and Antonios Remos. He composed hit songs such as ‘Vrechi fotia sti strata mou’ for Stratos Dionysiou, ‘Fige sou leo’ for Rena Koumioti, ‘Ti sou kana na pineis’ for Poli Panou, and ‘Pios to kseri’ for Giannis Coutras. He also worked with artists who later performed in the Eurovision Song Contest, such as Yovanna (for whom he wrote ‘To krima’), Marinella (‘Apopse se thelo’), and Nana Mouskouri (‘Asteri asteraki’). Many of his works were covered by other artists numerous times; the song ‘An s’arnitho, agapi mou’ alone was recorded in more than hundred different versions. Italian songstress Caterina Valente put another of Plessas’ compositions, ‘O erotas pou m'akouse’, on her repertoire.

Plessas had a fruitful working relationship with lyricist Lefteris Papadopoulos. Together, they penned all songs for Giannis Poulopoulos’ album ‘O dromos’, which was released in 1969 and of which no fewer than 2,5 million copies were sold. Probably, this LP, a milestone in Greek music history and containing the classic ‘To agalma’ (The statue), will forever remain the best-selling record of all times in the Hellenic country. Poulopoulos interpreted many of Plessas’ best-known songs, including ‘Ola dika sou matia mou’, ‘Kamaroula mia stalia’, and ‘Tha pio apopse to feggari’.

Plessas with Giannis Poulopoulos

Mimis Plessas participated in many song festivals both in Greece and abroad. As a composer, arranger, and conductor, he competed in six editions of the annual Thessaloniki Song Contest between 1962 and 1982. In 1985, his song ‘Proti tou May’, with lyrics by Sophia Fildissi, was the Greek representative in the World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo, Japan; the song was interpreted by Cleopatra and conducted by Plessas himself.

Mimis Plessas did not confine himself to composing entertainment music, quite the opposite – he ventured into many different genres. He wrote the scores to over one hundred films and television programmes, including ‘Gorgones kai manges’ (1968) and the highly appreciated historical documentary series ‘Ta pedia tis Niovis’ (2004). Another movie to which Plessas wrote the soundtrack, ‘To choma vaftike kokkino’ (1965), was nominated for an Oscar Award and projected in the film festivals of Cannes and Carlsbad in 1966. Moreover, he penned the music to many theatre productions, ranging from ancient Greek tragedies and avant-garde performances to fully-fledged musicals, such as ‘Utopia’ (1977). Amongst the operas and operettas which Plessas has to his name, ‘Zeus’ (1998) and ‘Kosmas o Aitolos’ (1999) – the last of which premiered in the Megaro Mousikis in Athens in 2002 – deserve special mention. In 2004, his symphonic suite ‘O choros ton planiton’, commissioned by the Eugenides Foundation, was first performed in Athens.

Plessas always stayed faithful to jazz music. Until the 1970s, however, there was no interest whatsoever from record companies in Greece to release jazz material. Nevertheless, Plessas kept performing with his quartet, which often changed personnel, but has existed until today. In the 1950s, Nana Mouskouri made her debut as a singer of jazz repertoire with Plessas’ quartet. After the fall of the Regime of the Colonels (1974), jazz music experienced a revival unseen before in Greece. Since, many recordings were made of Plessas’ works, including the retrospective ‘Saranta chronia jazz’ (Forty years of jazz) in 1981. Moreover, he performed in many jazz concerts around the country and abroad; at the 2005 Impro Jazz Festival in Thessaloniki, Plessas teamed up with singer Zoï Couroucli and saxophonist Thanos Georgoulas for a concert which presented a synopsis of Greek jazz music from the end of the Second World War onwards.

With Mikis Theodorakis, Plessas is probably the most recognized Greek composer of popular music of the 20th century – both in Greece and internationally. In his country, the maestro received ample recognition for his contribution to music. In 2002, an honorary concert in Athens was bestowed upon him to celebrate his fiftieth anniversary as a professional musician. One year prior to this, he was named an officer in the Order of the Phoenix by the president of Greece. Moreover, in 2004, the ministry of Culture chose Mimis Plessas as its ‘Man of the Year’. In 2009, Plessas was awarded with the Epilogos Prize in recognition of his entire oeuvre. He was regularly called upon to be a juror in music competitions, including the Greek Eurovision pre-selection in 2005, during which ‘My number one’ was chosen; this song, interpreted by Elena Paparizou, was subsequently crowned as the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev – the first-time ever Greece won the competition.

Plessas receiving the Epilogos Prize from Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou (far left). To Plessas’ right: TV personality Bilio Tsoukala and Takis Vlastos, president of Epilogos (2009)

Mimis Plessas in the Eurovision Song Contest
Mimis Plessas arranged and conducted ‘Mou les’, which was the Greek entry to the 1983 Eurovision Song Contest, held in the Rudi-Sedlmeyer-Halle in Munich, the capital of Bavaria (West Germany). The sensitive ballad was composed by his son Antonis and performed by a young girl singer named Christie Stasinopoulou. It is only one of seven Greek participations in the contest in the 1980s – due to the fact that the socialist PASOK government was not really keen on having a part in what was considered a festival of commercial music. In 1982, 1984, and 1986, Greece declined entering the competition or withdrew.

In spite of his career with many highlights, Mimis Plessas remembers this one Eurovision chapter very well: “On a cold and rainy afternoon in February 1983, I was lying in bed with a fever, having caught a very nasty cold. The telephone rang and the voice of my son Antonis announced me that both of the songs he had submitted for the Greek Eurovision heats were amongst the final fifteen elected. I felt proud and moved at the same time! Being the composer, Antonis had the right to choose the soloists, the arranger, and the conductor he preferred for the Greek final in Athens. He chose the interpreters amongst his friends and co-students. As I had repeatedly been awarded in international conducting festivals and had led symphony and philharmonic orchestras, it was only natural that Antonis chose me as his arranger and conductor. From all fifteen songs, my son’s composition ‘Mou les’ was chosen as the most suitable to represent our country at the Eurovision Song Contest in Munich. It was a ballad, written in a typically Greek 5/8 measure. Antonis insisted on having an orchestral bridge with a jazzy feeling. Keeping the skills of the Eurovision orchestra in mind, I scored an interval using four on-stage musicians who backed up the singer: two guitarists, a percussionist with bongos and a triangle, and a multi-instrumentalist who played the flute and the saxophone. I thought the result was interesting and the song sounded so different from the entries from all other countries! In the first reading, the German orchestra applauded. Just a couple of hours after the first rehearsals, Antonis was offered 10,000 dollars for sub-edition rights by a music publishing company. Probably, it was thought our song was a promising outsider.”

Mimis Plessas with his son Antonis, who composed ‘Mou les’

In Munich, it was not long before the Greek delegation encountered some inconveniences. Mimis Plessas recalls: “Having arrived in Munich, the PR lady informed the delegation that the breakfast was not included. Imagine five young and talented soloists being angry and hungry! Why it was not included, you ask? I cannot be sure; it must either have been negligence on the part of our PR or a general policy at the Greek broadcaster to reduce expenses. Remember that ERT was totally controlled by the government and that the new socialist Minister for Culture, Melina Mercouri, was not in favour of Greece participating in the Eurovision Song Contest anyway. In Munich, we were told to avoid all publicity – while all other delegations were giving parties and press-conferences trying to promote their artists. I cannot say we really succeeded in doing so… during the festivities in Munich, I got the chance to talk to Helmut Kohl, the centre-right West German chancellor; it turned out he was a Philhellene, speaking ancient Greek! He spent much of his presence discussing with me about Greek poetry and mythology. Of course, press photographers witnessed that Kohl preferred the company of our delegation to all the others, taking pictures of the both of us whilst we were having our long conversation. You will understand that these photos, when they were published in Greek newspapers, were not very welcome to either the dominant left-wing press or to our government.”

In the end, ‘Mou les’ finished on a disappointing fourteenth spot, despite the enthusiasm of music critics – the song was the favourite of, amongst others, the Netherlands’ TV commentator Willem Duys, who dubbed it “an oasis of quiet in the evil world of noise” – and the members of the German orchestra. For Mimis Plessas, that is not the dominant memory of the week in Munich, however: “Only hours before the dress rehearsal, I was told by the production team that our song exceeded the maximum of three minutes and that I had to reduce the length of my score with at least twenty-five seconds. Otherwise, we faced disqualification. The only way to do that was to be there one hour before the rehearsal and adapt all parts manually on the spot, as these were already on the orchestra musicians’ stands! I managed to correct the arrangements just in time, but the result of my hard work was that I caught lumbago, a severe pain in my lower back. On the big night, it was quite impossible for me to climb the stairs to the conductor’s podium in front of the orchestra. The God Apollo, protector of all musicians, gave us the idea… the German maestro was to help me on my way up by shaking hands and keeping hold of my hand; after the performance, he was there to lead me down to the medics who were already waiting for me backstage. They helped me lying down on a stretcher and I was carried away to the hotel immediately. The next day we flew back to Athens, where it took no fewer than twenty days of treatment to heal the damage in my spine!”

Plessas conducting a television orchestra in Greece

Plessas concludes: “Nevertheless, it was well worth going to Munich, if only because the lyrics of our ballad were written by Greek Academy Award winner Sophia Fildissi. The sensitive performance by Christie Stasinopoulou and the talent of our instrumentalists who played their instruments live on stage make me still miss the times when Eurovision was a contest in which every country sang in its native language and in which a modern symphony orchestra was there to accompany all selected songs.”

Other artists on Mimis Plessas
Pontic lyra virtuoso Matthaios Tsahourides believes Plessas paved the way for him: “Prominent composer Mimis Plessas is the person who introduced the sound of the Pontic lyra and the other bowed and plucked lutes that I perform into a vast audience in Greece, through his film scores. For me and my brother Constantinos, Mimis Plessas is our ‘musical father in spirit’. My experience of working with him – including the two oratorios ‘Kosmas o Aitolos’ and ‘Saint Paul’, as well as the music monograph ‘Agies Mnimes’ – is undoubtedly unique and gave me the opportunity to learn and experience musical performance from a different perspective.” (2006)

Plessas flanked by Antonios Remos, a laïkó singer who recorded many of his compositions

Links & sources
  • Heartfelt thanks to Mimis Plessas himself for providing us with minute memories of his Eurovision involvement in 1983. All pictures courtesy of Mimis Plessas.
  • A wealth of information can be found on Mimis Plessas’ website, www.plessas.org.

Website(s):
www.plessas.org  

  

Songs conducted
1983: Mou les