Founder of Epiphone and the Guitar Wizard of Manhattan
Each December, Epiphone celebrates the birth of the company's founder, Epi Stathopoulo. (Born December 1, 1893.) Epi was, to quote Don Gibson, a legend in his own time. To the first generation of jazz guitarists--themselves the very essence of modernity--Epi was not only a friend and a fellow musician. He was also thought of as the protean American businessman: brash, confidant, and at times, a visionary.
"Epi was a friend of mine," recalled guitar legend Les Paul. "Epiphone always made a good guitar." Throughout his short life, Epi imagined himself and the company he had inherited from his father--the House of Stathopoulo--as ideal examples of the American ingenuity and progress. Epi took the American dream of free enterprise seriously and his consuming passions as a businessman were invention and innovation. He also drew great pleasure in driving his fellow competitors--especially Gibson--into fits of frustration.
When Epi's competitors made archtops, Epi in-turn created an entire line of flat top and archtop acoustic guitars, the Masterbilt Collection. In the late 1930s, inspired by the critical success of Gibson electric guitarist Charlie Christian, Epi hired Nathan Daniel--the future founder of Danelectro--to contribute amplifier designs at a time when few electric instruments existed.
Today, Epiphone archtops from the 1930s and 40s are collector's items, which speaks to the quality of Epiphone at a time when master luthiers Charles Stromberg and John D'Angelico were also building their namesake instruments. The strength of Epi's vision of building a company that would appeal to all musicians and styles continues to echo into the 21st Century. Epi would have no trouble recognizing the modern Masterbilt Century Archtop Collection or appreciating the value found in Epiphone Player Packs, both of which embody his idea of building superb instruments for both the professional and the beginner.
Under his guidance, the House of Stathopoulo played a central role in New York City's music culture during the time that Manhattan became a national media center for recording, radio, and theater. And even a decade after his untimely death in 1943, Epi's reputation was still strong enough that Gibson Vice President Ted McCarty took Les Paul's advice and rescued Epiphone from bankruptcy, purchasing the company and moving it from the east coast to Gibson's now-legendary factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The Stathopoulos in Manhattan
The opening chapter of the Epiphone story began over 140 years ago in Kastania in the mountains overlooking the ancient city of Sparta, Greece. Family legend tells that in 1865, Kostantinos Stathopoulo left Kastania and journeyed to Magoula in the Eurotas valley to register the birth of his son, Anastasios. Little else is known of the family until 1873, around the time of Anastasios's 12th birthday, when the Stathopoulo family left Greece for the coast of Turkey where they settled in Smyrna, a bustling seaport with a strong Greek immigrant population of merchants and craftsmen.
There, Kostantinos established himself as a lumber merchant. He often took Anastasios with him on work trips throughout Europe, where the boy observed his father's trade. During this time, the family established a store in Smyrna selling and repairing lutes, violins, and bouzoukis. By 1890, Anastasios was repairing and sometimes building instruments on his own, and his local reputation as a talented luthier provided enough business that he eventually opened his own instrument factory. He married and started a family. His first son, Epaminondas--soon nicknamed Epi--was born in 1893, followed by Alex, Minnie, Orpheus and Frixo.
High taxes imposed on Greek immigrants under the Ottoman Empire made life difficult for the Stathopoulos and at the age of 40, Anastasios boarded a ship to the United States with his young family. Public records from 1904 list A. Stathopoulo living at 56 Roosevelt on Manhattan's Lower East side, where they shared an apartment in a neighborhood with other Greek and Italian immigrants. Once in America, Anastasios continued his instrument trade and quickly assimilated the pace of American business practices. He filed his first and only known patent on March 25, 1909 for an Italian style bowl back mandolin. Anastasios's instruments now carried labels in English:
of all kinds of musical instruments
Patentee of the Orpheum Lyra
New York, 1911 U.S.A.
Epi, the oldest child, easily merged into American life, eventually attended Columbia University, and graduated with honors. "Epi evidently was a bit of a bon vivant," said Walter Carter, author of The Epiphone Book, a concise history of Epiphone. "He loved hanging out with musicians. He loved being an American." With Anastasios crafting and selling instruments on the ground floor and the family living upstairs, the line between work and home life became increasingly blurred. Epi and Orpheus ('Orphie') were soon helping out in the family instrument shop, now located at 247 West 42nd Street.
Epi was only 22 when his father Anastasios died and as the oldest son with a college degree, he was charged with taking over the family business. Already a keen student of his father's work and eager to establish himself in the marketplace, Epi replaced the family instrument label of his father's with a new one: "The House of Stathopoulo, Quality Instruments Since 1873." During his apprenticeship, Epi had become an avid amateur designer and inventor. So when he assumed ownership of the company after his mother's death in 1923, Epi also took a lead role in designing instruments. He was soon granted his first patent for a banjo tone ring and rim construction - 1,248,196 E. A. Stathopoulo. Epi also phased out most of the old world style mandolins and in their place, introduced the Recording line of banjos, then the most popular instrument in post-World War I America.
Epiphone, The House of Stathopoulo
The Recording line included the Recording (A) at $125, the Bandmaster at $200, the Concert at $275, and the De Luxe, which sold for $350. Today, the new Mayfair Banjo pays tribute to the Epiphone's best 1920s and 1930s designs. Epi continued to expand as his business and the company's reputation for quality work grew. He acquired the "stock, goodwill, and modern machinery" of the Farovan Company instrument plant in Long Island and incorporated. Epi also gave his business a new name--Epiphone. "Epiphone" referenced not only his own name, but also the Greek word for sound--phone. The new name was an echo of the Greek word epiphonous, meaning one sound on another, the son building on the dreams of the father.
Epi took for himself the title of president and general manager and announced in trade publications and advertisements that "the new policy of business and all interest will be devoted to the production of banjos, tenor banjos, banjo mandolins, banjo guitars, and banjo ukuleles under the registered trademark name of 'Epiphone.'"
The Epiphone Company retained most of the Long Island factory's skilled workers and production increased. Ornate banjo models were introduced in 1927 including the Emperor tenor banjo ($500), the Dansant ($450), the Concert Special ($300) and the Alhambra ($200). Business continued to improve and the Stathopoulo brothers, with brother Orphie now serving as Vice President, moved the company to 235-237 West 47th Street. By 1928, The Epiphone Banjo Company was making banjos for both Selmer/Conn and the Continental Music stores, each a major distributor of modern American instruments. In 1928, Epiphone also introduced their first line of acoustic guitars to compete with Gibson, the company that Epi determined was Epiphone's greatest rival in quality and variety.
The Recording series of acoustic guitars, like the banjo line, were each identified by a letter ('A' through 'E') and were notable for their unusual body shape. The instruments combined Spruce and laminated Maple and were available as an archtop or flattop. But the Recording guitars were not initially a success. They were small and arguably too ornate, particularly in comparison to the size and volume of Gibson's popular new L-5, which had projection, tone, and complimented modern rhythm sections with a tuneful timbre and snare drum-like attack. Though banjo sales remained steady immediately after the stock market crash of 1929, Epi was keenly aware that archtop guitars were becoming more popular. In 1931, the Epiphone Banjo Company announced the introduction of the Masterbilt line of guitars featuring seven carved top, f-hole style archtops ranging in price from $35 to $275.
Throughout the 1930s, the rivalry between Epiphone and Gibson would veer from friendly sparring to all-out guitar warfare. Gibson retaliated with a new archtop design in 1934, increasing the body width of its existing models and introducing the king-sized Super 400 (named after its $400 price tag). Not to be outdone, Epi replied the following year with the top-of-the-line Emperor, which had a slightly wider body and a provocative advertising campaign featuring a nude woman holding an Epiphone archtop. In 1936, Epiphone increased the size of its De Luxe, Broadway and Triumph models by an inch making them 3/8" wider than Gibson's archtops to become some of the most distinctive instruments on the market.
"Before World War II, there was a fundamental difference in management between Epiphone and Gibson," said Walter Carter. "Epi Stathopoulo was a musician who had regular contact with New York's finest guitarists at jam sessions at the Epi offices. Gibson, since 1924, was headed up by Guy Hart, an accountant, whose only contact with top musicians would have been when they made an out-of-the-way trip to Kalamazoo. Although Gibson was fiercely competitive, I think Epiphone was better positioned geographically as well as in management to take market share away from Gibson."
By the mid '30s, Epiphone guitars were considered to be among the best in the world, and Epi himself was enjoying the patronage of the most respected players on the scene. "Epiphone's prewar acoustic archtops are among the best of that genre," continued Carter. "They're every bit as good as Gibsons but they have a different sound. It's easy to see how a Ford-or-Chevy kind of loyalty could have developed among players of that era."
For a young Les Paul, who gravitated toward African American jazz players like Daniel Barker, Charlie Christian, and Leonard Ware, Epi provided a place where all players could talk shop and--if they so desired--even try out some inventions of their own.
"I had played Epiphone guitars and liked them very much... I had a Deluxe. For rhythm... well, it just happened to be one of the finest guitars. It had quite a different sound than the Gibson. And when I came to New York, then I got acquainted with the Epiphone people and that's where the whole thing started. I just went down to 14th street and said "Hi, I'm Les Paul" and they knew me from being on (Fred Waring's radio) show." Epi Stathopoulo appreciated Les' entrepreneurial spirit and soon gave the young jazz guitarist the company key on weekends to try out his crazy idea: building a solid body guitar.
In an interview with Epiphone, Paul remembered working after hours on the Epiphone factory floor. "It was on the second floor on 14th street... The watchman just showed me where the levers were to turn on the current to run the lathes and do this and do that and the place was mine... I'd go in the front door and go out the back door to go home."
Epi's death in 1943 shattered the spirit of the company and his brothers struggled to adjust to post-war music styles as acoustic archtops lost favor to electric guitars, including Les Paul's "Log" which by the early 50s had been redesigned by Gibson as the Les Paul guitar. After moving Epiphone from Manhattan to Philadelphia (a move that so angered long-time luthiers that many stayed behind to form Guild Guitars), the remaining Stathopoulo Brothers were so thrilled when Gibson's Ted McCarty called about buying the Epiphone upright bass business that they offered McCarty the entire company.
"I'm the guy that talked Gibson into buying Epiphone," remembered Les Paul. "I told Mr. Maurice Berlin (the founder of Chicago Musical Instruments who owned Gibson)--'you know Epiphone is sitting there and it has one hell of a name and why don't you just make a deal and get that name. And make a different line of guitars so they are separate from the Gibson line and you can go creating other ideas...' And Mr. Berlin did just that and he purchased the name and everything else."
It took less than five years for Epiphone to distinguish itself in the new market geared toward a new generation of players and by 1965, virtually every "British Invasion" band could be seen on stage playing an Epiphone including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Hollies, and the Yardbirds. Even today (as the surviving Stathopoulo Brothers insisted when the family name was sold to Gibson) Epi's photograph watches over Epiphone's state of the art headquarters in Nashville which today is arguably the capitol city for American music just as New York was in Epi's lifetime.
"We have our own history, a real history that cannot be denied," said Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg. "We have an obligation to our 140 year legacy and millions of Epiphone fans to provide the best, most affordable instruments day in, day out. And, under the umbrella of Gibson Musical Instruments, we can continue to do that for another 140 years or more."