The Armenian music community has lost another gentle giant, Harry Minassian.
Known throughout the east coast as a prominent oud player (Middle Eastern lute, 11 strings) as well as a singer, Harry’s playing and vocal skills made him a versatile musician who joined the ranks of oud players, such as Charles “Chick” Ganimian and Richard A. Hagopian.
“Harry had a haunting soulful cry in his voice that cut straight to the heart. His oud playing was reminiscent of the great Udi Hrant,” said Armenian musician Steve Vosbikian, who recorded with Harry over 40 years ago.
Throughout his career as a musician, Harry performed at countless Armenian weddings and dances, but it was probably his cabaret and kef (party) performances that have left an indelible mark with his audiences and fans over the many decades, including myself.
As most fans of Armenian and Middle Eastern music can attest, it’s the artists’ actual recordings that we experience before we actually see them performing live on stage. That held true for me when it came to Harry. It wasn’t until I started going to Kef Time Hartford or July 4th Kef weekends where I really understood the musicianship of Harry Minassian. Usually only performing on the last afternoon of a kef, Harry was the perfect headliner musician to close out what was always a fantastic weekend of musical events.
Harry was in his element at these events, performing at a dance as if it were a nightclub venue. No other Armenian performer could capture this in my opinion. Most of the songs he performed were almost standard repertoire for the audiences. When Harry played, you knew what to expect. In the middle of a given event he might transition into some songs for just listening pleasure giving his fans a better glimpse into his vocal talents, such as a rendition of Charlie Aznavour’s La Mamma (which Harry recorded on Excited Moods of the Middle East) and Hastayım Yaşıyorum written by Udi Hrant.
Upon learning of Harry’s loss, Steve Vosbikian, clarinetist of the Fabulous Vosbikian Band, recalled the album they recorded together back in 1974. “I also attribute Harry’s recording for teaching me how to make a studio album that later led me to make my own recordings for the Vosbikian Band. Harry was always enthusiastic, upbeat and intensely focused on his musical work product and was meticulous with his repertoire and musical arrangements. I remember Harry’s comedic sense of humor always sprinkled with his characteristic and distinctive New England accent. Harry always made us feel like family and gave us the motivation to perform at our very best.”
While music was his first love, Harry also spent his professional career as a co-owner and administrator of several nursing facilities with his loving wife Gail. Together they managed Bay Tower Nursing Center in Providence, RI, Oceanside in Quincy, MA and Crestwood Nursing in Warren, RI. By night, music filled his life and soul.
“He was consistently there for all of us, a gifted man of a few words with sound advice,” said Charlie Krikorian, longtime friend and organizer of the July 4th Kef Weekends that featured Harry as a headliner musician. “Harry was genuine in every sense of the word. Harry was a class act – respectful of all, never petty and complimentary to other musicians and in all aspects where credit was due,” he continued.
Harry was a first-generation American Armenian born in 1937 to survivors of the Armenian Genocide. He grew up in a loving family that spoke both Armenian and Turkish and nurtured his love of Armenian and Middle Eastern music.
He first performed with The Orientales in the mid-1950s. The Orientales Orchestra consisted of Carl Zeytoonian (oud), Nick Zeytoonian (dumbeg, tambourine), Berge Krikorian (dumbeg/singer), Ara DerMarderosian (clarinet) and Aaron DerMarderosian (dumbeg). They would record three 78RPM records together.
As did many Armenian musicians from that era, Harry played the robust nightclub circuit throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The clubs were plentiful, and you could hear live music seven nights a week. Harry performed quite often with a dumbeg (hourglass shaped hand drum) performer, Gary Alexanian, along with Arabic violinist Fred Elias and Greek guitarist/singer, George Righellis. A well-known and powerful ensemble, this group played most of the popular clubs throughout the New England area, including the famous Club Zara.
Harry would eventually perform with the El Jezayre Orchestra that included George Righellis, Zaven Takvorian, Charlie Bagdigian and Charlie Jerahian. Later in the mid-1970s, Harry performed every week at The Seventh Veil (Rhode Island) with different musicians for several years.
“There will never be another Harry.”
“Harry was unique as a performer. There was something different about him that was engaging,” said oudist John Berberian. “He was one of those rare musicians that somehow was able to combine his talent with his personality when he performed. You loved the music and you loved the person simultaneously. There will never be another Harry.”
Perhaps one of the highlights in Harry’s musical career was meeting and studying with the famous blind Armenian oudist, Udi Hrant Kenkulian.
In the late 1950s, Udi Hrant, who was well known throughout Turkey for his oud compositions and singing, made frequent trips to the United States in hopes of finding a cure for his blindness. In order for Hrant to make these trips to the US, there were a group of patrons that helped fund his travel. These patrons also helped Hrant find gigs while he was in the country, which also ultimately allowed several young Armenian musicians to meet the Oud master.
During one of these trips to the east coast, Hrant, aided by musician and patron Charlie Jerahian, met Harry and heard the youthful musician playing the oud. Hrant was intrigued. And, the rest, as they say, is music history. At one point, Hrant even wanted Harry to perform alongside him in the Catskills for an entire summer with Harry on oud and Hrant on violin, an opportunity Harry passed on but regretted later in life. Nevertheless, Harry was given invaluable lessons by Hrant and quickly became a popular musician in the Boston area. One of Harry’s prized possessions was a rare certificate from Udi Hrant signifying his tutelage and achievements as an oudist. The certificate includes Hrant’s thumbprint on the document. It was Udi Hrant who gave Harry the title of Udi (the highest honor given to another musician on the oud) over 50 years ago.
As a musician, Harry “paid it forward” by teaching other students what he learned from Udi Hrant. In particular, one of Harry’s oud students was Joe Kouyoumjian.
“Without Harry’s guidance and close friendship, l never would have been introduced into the night club circuit, nor would l have met so many great Armenian, Greek, Arabic and Turkish musicians, and most of all l would have missed out on touring from the east coast—Boston to Miami to Las Vegas, San Francisco, Fresno and Los Angeles as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s all because Harry Minassian took me under his wing and was a major part of my musical life,” said Kouyoumjian. “He was a super guy, a dad, friend and killer singer and oud player.”
Leon Janikian, a music professor, emeritus of Northeastern University and a clarinetist who performed extensively with Harry for several years, agrees. “He was a unique talent, and played exactly as he wished with no compromise. But, he was also a very kind and open musician, always ready to support and have a few laughs while doing what we all love to do so much, play music.”
Harry’s legacy is vast and wide even amongst famous musicians, such as oudist and composer Ara Dinkjian. “In 1980, I was a senior at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. I received a call from our dear friend Greg Janian (who passed away in 2010), asking if I would like to play a weekly gig at The Mountain View Restaurant in Boylston, MA. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Who else is playing?’ ‘Carnig Mikitarian and Harry Minassian.’ HARRY MINASSIAN! I had never played with Harry, but of course knew that he was one of the giants of our music, both as an oud player and as a singer. What I didn’t know, but soon came to realize, was what a kind, generous, and modest man he was. Add to that his great sense of humor and genuine love of music, and you have a rare treasure in the Armenian American community. My fellow music undergrads would be jealous as I would pack my car on Wednesdays and drive to my gig. With his gentle and patient disposition, Harry taught me repertoire, intonation, pacing, tempo and professionalism,” said Dinkjian.
Harry J. Minassian of Norton passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family on June 26, 2020 after a brief illness. He was 83 years old. He is survived by his beloved wife, Gail (Finn) Minassian. He was the devoted father of Mark Minassian and his wife Lisa of Cranston, RI; Gary Minassian and his wife Karen of Rehoboth, MA; and Gregory Minassian of Quincy, MA. He was the loving grandfather of five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was the dear brother of the late Nazareth “Naz” Minassian and Louis Minassian. He is also survived by many loving nieces and nephews, relatives and friends.