In English the word xydi means vinegar. While performing, John might introduce himself as John Vinegar, but then comically gives the reason: “Because I am so sweet, I was given the opposite name.”
When John was eight years old, he and his mother moved to Athens where they were able to benefit from his father’s pension. They lived in the Athens neighborhood of Kypseli. He first attended public school and was later able to attend private schools with the children of wealthy Greek tycoons. He graduated from Baxter, one of those schools, with high scores in mathematics. He also excelled in acrobatics and had planned to train others in the skill. However, he was injured while performing on the parallel bars. So while his acrobatic partner, Aleko, joined the circus in Thessaloniki, Greece, John found other ways to use his talent.
His mother, Evangelia, married Leftheris Papadas in 1951 and John came to cherish his new father. Leftheris accepted Evangelia’s choice to have no more children in order to avoid any possible conflict between stepchildren. John remembers the love and support Leftheris provided. Evangelia was full of energy and love, frequently sharing her home with friends. She was also a good singer and John always sang as a young child. He had occasion to meet a well-known vocal improviser, “Thani,” who inspired him. He recalls performing when he knew only three songs. He later worked for a plumber friend during a period of construction growth and found that his mathematics were a big help in preparing plumbing installations.
By his early twenties, John was playing the guitar and performing. During the Junta, the military government of Greece in the late 1960s, much of his music was in protest of that government. While his work was primarily for entertainment, he wanted his audiences to be educated and to question the politics around them. When the police approached and heard his music, he would use nonsense words or “la, la, la” to avoid any confrontation. He always had “gypsy blood’ and traveled to European countries whenever possible. John had also been thinking about America and the freedom it might give him. So, he decided to leave Greece to begin the next chapter of his life. He sold his BMW motorcycle and left with a few possessions, including a single dollar his mother gave him so he could send a telegram should he decide to return to Greece.
It was 1967 when John had his first North American experience living with family friends from Kypseli. He was alone in Montreal, Quebec, and began walking to the friends’ home. The first street sounds he heard were two Greek men playing tavli (backgammon), something he associated with Greece, but never expected in America. Shortly after his arrival he moved with the family friends to Hamilton, Ontario, where he attended school to learn English. He also took a job working in a steel fabrication plant. Conditions were very difficult working around a large furnace. After three months he was laid off but had established a good work record. He might have been called back to work but the only phone number on his employment file was that of a friend’s gas station. Fortunately, the person answering the phone had never heard of John Xydis, and John did not return to the iron dust environment. With his plumbing experience, he was able to work for a short time with a Greek plumbing contractor he had met in Hamilton. The contractor appreciated hearing stories about Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis, musicians whom John had met in Greece. With money he earned John bought his first guitar, the one he still has today.
In 1968 John was riding the bus in Hamilton when he saw Janice Coleman across the aisle. After exchanging a few knowing glances, John used the few English words he knew: “May I talk to you? No afraid. Me no gangster.” – which apparently did the trick. Janice had finished university and worked as a visiting nurse. When John began playing music in Toronto, Ontario, Janice would travel to visit him. Later, John obtained work in Chicago, Illinois, and the couple spent their money traveling between Chicago, Toronto and Montreal. They were married in a civil ceremony after a long wait in line on August, 1, 1969, and the judge said “Just say yes” when John, with his limited understanding of English, struggled to understand the questions. Their honeymoon was a boat tour on Lake Michigan, John falling asleep in his tuxedo having worked late the night before.
John’s musical career developed in Chicago. He played and sang in a group with Rosita Romero, a Puerto Rican singer. She taught John Spanish songs and he taught her Greek songs. He played with Hari Lemonopolis, a well-known bouzouki player, and many Greek musicians known throughout America and in many Greek and Italian venues. Even without an agent, John’s reputation, along with Janice’s nursing work, provided an income for the couple. They were able to live in a small apartment provided by Louis Wiess Memorial Hospital where she worked. Their son Jason was born in this hospital on March, 4, 1974. With money they had saved, John brought his parents from Greece to live with them. In a crowded apartment, odd working hours, and a new baby, it was time to purchase a home and the entire family moved to River Forest, Illinois, home to the Italian mafia.
In 1975 John moved from Chicago. First, he played in Oakland, California. Janice and the family joined him in Oakland where they stayed for two years while John played in Texas, Colorado and Hawaii as well as California. Then an opening arose in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the couple almost put down roots and considered buying a business.
However, a call came from Seattle, Washington, to play at the Greek Village for Pete Farmasonis (see A GREEK VILLAGE FOR TWO). When John smelled the salt air of Seattle’s Puget Sound during an unheard stretch of 22 days of sunshine, it reminded him of his time as a youngster in Volos and he decided “this is the place.” Finally, with Jason growing, John’s parents aging and Janice not wanting to move again, Seattle became their permanent home.
From Seattle, John was able to travel rather easily to Portland, Oregon, or Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia, for performances. However, when Greek nightclubs began to decline in the 1980s, John sought an alternative source of income and purchased Angelo’s restaurant in West Seattle from Angelo Saris. Although he knew little about the food he was serving, the fast food restaurant was able to provide an income for the next eight years until it sold in 1988. John’s parents, Evangelia and Leftheris, had lived with the Xydis family from the time they left Chicago until Jason was 10 years old when they returned to Greece for health reasons. Evangelia, a diabetic, died in 1989 and Leftheris, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, died in 1992.
John and Janice’s son Jason and his wife JoAnn live nearby in Seattle giving John and Janice the opportunity to repeat the extended family Greek tradition with grandchildren, Johnny and Joslyn (Evangelia).
John’s mother Evangelia had purchased a small piece of property on the island of Paros in the Greek Cyclades in the Aegean Sea in 1957. John’s dream of an island retreat was realized in 1987 when he began developing a small hotel on Paros. The hotel was later expanded with some units converted to apartments. John and Janice now spend four months each year on Paros. For John, the Evangelia Hotel, with its pleasant yard filled with olive, fig, apricot and lemon trees, is the perfect place to share coffee, time and especially his music with friends and visitors. His dream has come true.
In Seattle, John still plays and sings for events. He refers to his music as the Greek “oldies but goodies,” the songs with stories to tell, with emotions to share and without the loud repeating beat of more popular music. John remains a proud Greek who says “God Bless America.” He appreciates being treated as an equal, even with broken English and little understanding of American slang and appreciates the rewards that come from working hard and educating oneself. He is pleased to see Greeks in the United States keeping their culture through language, dance and church traditions. John particularly enjoys sharing time each week at lunches with other Seattle Greeks and Greek-Americans. He recently recorded his second compact disc entitled Metoikos Deo (the Immigrant) which is a compilation of his favorite poetic songs. His love of music prevails and, when he attends church services, the music of a choir gives him an oasis, a place of peace.By John and Joann Nicon (date when posted)
1 John and Janice at home, 2014
2 John in Greece, 1950s
3 Acrobats John (bottom) and friend Aleko, circa 1957
4 John in Montreal, circa 1967
5 John with Mikis Theodorakis in Toronto, 1969
6 John and Janice, circa 1969
7 Band members in Chicago (l-r)Hercules, John, Nickos, and unidentified player, 1970s
8 Hellas Café, Chicago, featuring John as singing star, 1973
9 Economist news article, 1973
10 Houston Chronicle advertisement, 1973
11 Don Ho and John in Hawaii, circa 1980
12 Evangelia, John, Jason, Janice, Leftheris, 1980
13 Jason and John, 1982
14 Spiro Savvides and John, 1980s
15 Jason, Janice and John, 1990s
16 John, Hank Bradley, John Tziotis, Cathie Whitesides, 1990s
17 JoAnn and Jason wedding, (l-r) JoAnn, Jason, Janice, John, 2007
18 JoAnn, Johnny, Jason, Joslyn, 2013
19 Janice and John on Paros, 2000
20 John at Evangelia snack bar on Paros, 2009
21 John’s compact disc Metoikos Deo, 2014
Photos 1 and 21 by John Nicon; 9 from Economist; 10 from Houston Chronicle; all others from Xydis family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, March 2014