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Part 3: A Serious Accident

Dancing with Legends: Interview of Freddie Elias

by Artemis Mourat

posted March 13, 2009
--part 1, part 2

Danny ThomasI got in a serious accident, October 23rd in 1971. God has been good to me. I am going to connect that to my working with Danny Thomas for many years and THAT brought me good luck. Well, we were going to Waterville, ME to play a concert. I had my band, “Fred Elias and his Ensemble of Renown.” We were together for thirty eight years, that orchestra. No parties. No one drank. No nothing. We were all weightlifters and we were very healthy. I have the recordings from those musicians. You must have the one with John.

The boys in my band were on all of the Artistic Moods records. That was my band that played with John Tatassopoulas. We were very good, humbly speaking. I love my guys. We saw funerals but music always brought us through life with a smile on our faces. They were the greatest musicians in the world as far as I’m concerned. The keyboard player, George Kokoras and his brother Nick Kokoras who plays bouzouki and guitar, and we had the drummer Mike Gregian, of course, who still plays with me now at this restaurant downstairs. In fact, George, Nick, Mike and I are working on a CD together now on authentic Middle Eastern music (it will include such things as masmoudi, Saidi and malfuf), and then we will work on a Turkish CD and after that we will create a Tribal belly dance CD.

Well, back to the accident, October  23rd  of 1971. I called up the band and I said; “Do me a favor.  I’ve been living here all my life and I want to see the famous fall foliage on the way to Waterville, Maine.”

They said; “OK, we’ll go by van.” So I took the oud player,

Richard Bayruty with me. He was driving. And I was smoking at that time. I blanked a cigarette at exactly 4:15 and I woke up three days later.

I put it (the cigarette) out and I looked at my watch, it was quarter past four. I woke up three days later.

Fred Elias
Fred's photo from Kochak LP #5

I heard that a kid ran a light and there was a collision. I broke my neck in two places. I swear on the Virgin Mary, I was crippled and paralyzed on my left side. I was all black and blue. The doctor said I would never play or walk again. My older sister was there and the rest of the family. They said; “You’ve got to take this.” The hospital scheduled brain surgery for 30 days later. Lots of people came to visit me. There were fifty people there at one time. They had to get extra chairs. I had a collar on my neck which I wore for two and a half years.

Meanwhile, I told my family to bring my violin. It was pretty rough. I couldn’t walk and I don’t know how but I managed to get the violin up, even though my hand and my whole left side were paralyzed. I was in the hospital and I snuck out of bed and I fell. There was a nurse named Lyndon, I remember her name like Lyndon Johnson. She said; “Fred you can’t do that. We are liable and responsible for any injuries.” So she left the room and I did it again but I managed not to fall. Then I was doing my own private therapy by myself every day, getting out of bed and lifting my violin.

The specialist was Dr Spatz, who was a world renowned neurosurgeon. He said; “Fred, you are crazy.” I said, “Doc, that’s a compliment. To me, that means you are saying; ‘I don’t believe you are doing that.’” But I’m still black and blue and I’m paralyzed. So the surgery was scheduled for another week. The day for the surgery came. You will never believe it but I moved my finger and I showed it to this other doctor from Texas.

Well, they cancelled the surgery! He said that when I was moving around and was sneaking out of bed, I triggered off a nerve and this is how I stopped being paralyzed. I told the doctor that I cheated him out of the operation and we were both glad.

My boys from the band came almost every day with their instruments. So George Kokoras, he is a beautiful guy, he said; “You’re going to get the hell out of here and we’ll get together and play.” So I got out of the hospital and I went home. There was an opening in the famous Bishop’s Restaurant in Lawrence, MA and I started working there. I cut my medical collar with scissors, so I could make a pocket for my chin so I could play my violin. It was hard at first but George took good care of me on stage. I was still having seizures and sometimes I would be off the beat without knowing it. George would take me by the hand and sit me down. The people in the audience knew who I was and they were understanding about my struggle.  It took time but I got my strength and coordination back. That was a great restaurant. Every Wednesday night there was a line like a mile. I played there two and a half or three years.

And then I got my collar off and I had to learn to play without it. I started doing exercises, fifty to seventy five push ups a day and I was running two miles every morning in order to get back to my originally status from before the accident.

Las Vegas
ratpackFlamingoThe next thing you know, there was a gentleman. Are you familiar with Buddy Sarkissian? He said; “There is an opening in Las Vegas, you wanna go?” I went and I lived there for two years from 1962 to 1964. We played at the Flamingo Hotel. I met Danny Thomas and I met all those wonderful guys. I knew all the guys who they called; “The Rat Pack” – Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior. Dean Martin was a great guy and he did not drink the way people thought he did. I used to meet him in the gym where we were both training. Frank was a boxer at one time too. Sammy and I traveled with Danny Thomas to Saint Louis, Missouri one time. As long as I breath, I will never forget this.

During the show, the band was quiet for a part of one of Sammy’s songs and he accompanied himself only by tapping on the microphone. It was phenomenal and it brought the house down.

At that concert, the people contributed six and one half million dollars for Saint Jude. Bob Hope was there too. We traveled in limousines too. Telly Savalas was the best though. He said; “Egypt, I got a thousand bucks here.” All he would gamble was $1000 a night and that was it. He was smart. He never lost too much money that way.” Did you know he was a speaker and a teacher and that is how he got discovered? I knew Barbara Streisand too. Fats Domino was there then too. I put a dollar in his slot machine and he won $10,000 on my dollar and he never gave me a dime.

Manny PetroLas Vegas was great. I was shocked the first night. We went out, it was a big hotel and they had music. I see this violinist and he was an Armenian Gypsy violinist, and he’s got fourteen guys with him. Well, I was ready to turn in my resignation and go home. I looked at Manny Petro, the guitar player, and said; “You see those guys up there? Do you see how good they are? We have only a drum, a violin and a guitar. How are we going to play here? Let’s cancel the job.” We had a meeting and decided that we were gonna do OK.

The first night we performed, I played one note and my bridge exploded on my violin. Thank God we had a piano because Fats Domino was playing there and I rolled the piano over to the band and we did the show.

After that I always took two violins with me everywhere. I had a special violin case made for me that holds two violins. You won’t believe this, but we broke all records on the strip. We had a belly dancer from Montreal, Canada. Her name is Lisa and she lives in California now. She married a famous trumpet player. I still talk to her twice a month.

Poor Manny, he gambled so hard that we had to keep his pay from him and send it to his family. That is the gentleman I was working with. He is deceased now. In those days in Las Vegas, the performers used to come back for what we called “free runs” when they lost their money gambling. When an entertainer lost his money that way, he would work at the club to pay off the debt. So he paid with his talent.

Let me tell you about Danny Thomas. The band and I worked with him for quite a while. At the Flamingo, Danny would stop by as a guest several times a week. He was Arabic, a Lebanese Arab, did you know? We got along very well and we got very close.

He told me his real name was Amos Jacobs. He was named after the person who saved his brother from drowning. Danny Thomas sang great Arabic music and when he dropped in to see our show, we always invited him to sing a song for us out of respect.

He sang in what we call “Atheba”. The intro will always start the same and then you have to improvise appropriately within the maqam. That laying out of the intro was governed by the flow and the balance of the improvisations. It was almost like a classical form of rap music. Danny Thomas took good care of his own. I loved that guy and how we became famous is a good story. He thanks Saint Jude and that is why he built the St Jude Hospital for Children. They give free care to sick children.

Saint JudeI believe in Saint Jude too. Many years ago, I was really destitute for $1000. I sat down and said the St Jude’s prayer three times. Well, Buddy Sarkissian and I had made some tapes in his cellar. He went to New York on business and he took the tapes with him just for the heck of it. As soon as I finished praying, I got a call from Buddy. He had showed the tapes to somebody and they paid him $2000. They made a 78 record from that music. Buddy gave me $1000. I still say the prayer six times a day every day. 

Most holy apostle, St Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, the Church honors and invokes you universally, as the patron of hopeless cases, of things almost despaired of. Pray for me, I am so helpless and alone. Make use, I implore you, of that particular privilege given to you, to bring visible and speedy help where help is almost despaired of. Come to my assistance in this great need that I may receive the consolation and help of heaven in all my necessities, tribulations, and sufferings, particularly (here make your request) and that I may praise God with you and all the elect forever. I promise, O blessed St Jude, to be ever mindful of this great favor, to always honor you as my special and powerful patron, and to gratefully encourage devotion to you. Amen. (* 7)

Believe me, it has helped me many times and I still say it six times every day.

I get severe migraine headaches. What I do is I don’t let anyone know. I don’t even let my son know. I go in the car and I just nap a little bit. And that is the concrete evidence of music. As soon as I play one note, the migraine is gone.

Steve Panagiotopoulos owns the Athenian Corner Restaurant. His son Ted is a sportswriter and his daughter is the manager.  She’s downstairs tonight. She is very sweet. The guys in the band, we love each other, unbelievably so. Mike Gregian and Costa Maniatakos, they are great people and great musicians.

Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3- you are here, Part 4

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