August 4, 1965
“Zorbas” (aka “Zorba’s Dance,” “Zorba the Greek,” etc) by Mikis Theodorakis
#1 on the IFOP Top 100 Singles Chart (France), June 26 – August 6, 1965
This week, let’s take a little mental vacation to a lovely Grecian isle. (Note: this probably works best if you’ve never actually been to Greece.) Picture the saturated azure of the Aegean Sea crashing against the bleached sand beaches. Smell the scent of the sweet olive trees mingling with the salty sea air. Taste souvlaki and ouzo from a late-night dinner at a blue-and-white taverna. Watch as a crew of burly, bearded men wrap their arms around each others’ shoulders, staggering in rhythm and crossing their feet side to side in a traditional line dance…
Can you hear in your head the music they’re dancing to? If so, there’s a good chance it’s the jangly, bouzouki-laden composition “Zorbas” (better known as “Zorba’s Dance”), written by Mikis Theodorakis for the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. Both the movie and the song were massive hits in the mid-’60s (the former winning three Oscars) and have endured for decades in the popular imagination as modern Greece’s primary pop culture representation. (The 2002 surprise blockbuster My Big Fat Greek Wedding nods to this stereotype by naming the parents’ restaurant Dancing Zorba’s.)
The film Zorba the Greek is based on the 1946 novel by Cretan philosophical writer Nikos Kazantzakis, also known for penning The Last Temptation of Christ (1951). The Hollywood adaptation stars Anthony Quinn as Alexis Zorbas (or Zorba), a Macedonian jack-of-all-trades with a fervent zeal for living life to the fullest. En route to Crete, Zorba meets a bookish, repressed Englishman named Basil (Alan Bates) who has inherited a coal mine from his Greek father. After some initial trepidation, Basil hires Zorba as his foreman. Over the course of the film, the pair develop a close relationship, as the Greek encourages the Englishman to break out of his shell and embrace life.
Despite Zorba’s personal exuberance, the pair’s friendship is beset with disaster. Two women close to the main characters die horrifically, the mine is found too dangerous to use, and a last-ditch attempt at setting up a logging operation flops dramatically. Dejected, Basil decides to return to England. Before he leaves, however, he asks his friend to teach him to dance. Despite the tragedies they’ve just experienced, the pair dance joyfully on the beach, enjoying the thrill of simply being alive.
Zorba’s dance — formally called sirtaki — is often believed to be a traditional Greek folk dance, but was actually created for the film by choreographer Giorgos Provias. Likewise, the sound of “Zorba’s Dance” so personifies Greek music (to non-Greek ears, anyway) that it’s hard to believe that it was composed for a movie. Perhaps much of this can be attributed to the fact that Zorba the Greek wasn’t made on some studio backlot by Hollywood types, but was filmed on location by a cast and crew (apart from stars Quinn, Bates, and Lila Kedrova) largely composed of Greek and Cypriot natives.
Mikis Theodorakis, for example, wasn’t some foreign composer stringing together Hellenic stereotypes for a movie soundtrack. He started his career in the ’50s writing classical music in Paris, before returning to his native Greece and incorporating the traditional music of his homeland. Theodorakis’ embrace of Greek folk music was largely politically motivated, reflected in the fact that he founded the left-wing Lambrakis Democratic Youth party in 1963 and was voted a member of Greek Parliament in 1964, the same year Zorba the Greek was released. Soon afterward, the right-wing political establishment banned his music, and spent the late ’60s in jail, in a concentration camp, and eventually exiled in Paris. He was finally able to return to Greece in 1974, where he is considered the nation’s greatest living composer.
Despite Theodorakis’ vast number of symphonic works, operas, and hymns, however, “Zorba’s Dance” will forever stand as his most famous piece. Theodorakis’ recording topped the charts around the world, including in France (“La Danse de Zorba”) and Italy (“La Danza di Zorba”). In the UK, Marcello Minerbi’s version of “Zorba’s Dance” rose to #6 in 1965, while a remake by the dance act LCD made the Top 20 in 1998. A 1965 cover by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (titled “Zorba the Greek”) hit #11 on the US pop charts. More than mere chart success, however, the composition has become synonymous with Greek culture — even if in a slightly kitschy way.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.