As Frankie Valli once sang, “Headed for city lights/Climbed the ladder up to fortune and fame/I worked my fingers to the bone/Made myself a name.”
If you ask Maria Papageorgiou what song she loved to see her brother, Demetri Callas, perform the most, she’ll tell you that it was the 1974 Frankie Valli soft-rock hit “My Eyes Adored You.” In it, that passage comes about halfway through the track, at the 1:35 mark.
Among all the hits on which he played, all the tours upon which he embarked, all the artists with whom he shared a stage, it’s possible that such a lyric defined Callas’ career more accurately than even he might have known at the time. Starting in Frederick, he earned every job he took, becoming a local legend before eventually landing a position as guitarist for the Four Seasons.
And as Papageorgiou reminisced this week about the way the song would often move her whenever she saw it performed live, she glowed at the memories.
“Oh, I used to love it,” she said. “I always took immeasurable pride knowing that my brother was onstage.”
The stage got a little quieter on Monday, however, when Callas, 77, known to many as “Penny,” died of heart failure. Living in Las Vegas through the final chapter of his life, the Frederick native had been battling Parkinson’s disease in recent years.
But while his failing health may have been a strong indicator that he was approaching the last months of his life, the news of his death didn’t come any easier to those who knew him best.
“I was shocked, but I was kind of expecting it,” said Sam Paladino, who shared a few stages with Callas after getting his start playing with Roy Clark. “We always had good memories together. He was a great guy and I’m going to miss him.”
Troy Remsburg, a friend and band mate who helped organize a couple of benefit concerts for Callas in recent years, said even though his death was expected, it’s hard to believe.
“We all knew this was coming because Parkinson’s was sucking the life out of him,” he said. “But now that it’s happened, it’s so surreal. It’s like an old country store you grew up going to your whole life but you know that someday, it’s not going to be there anymore.
“You know it’s going to happen,” he concluded. “But nobody wants to let it go completely.”
Getting hooked on rock ’n’ roll
Demetri “Penny” Callas was born June 7, 1942, at Frederick Memorial Hospital to Anastasia Chantiles Callas, a daughter of Greek immigrants, and John Pantelis Callas, a Greek immigrant himself who owned and operated the Bluebird Restaurant in downtown Frederick. Demetri was a smart kid; administrators in elementary school once suggested moving up two grades, a move his parents vetoed.
He was only 7 years old when he decided to take his first music lesson — not on guitar, but rather the accordion. It wasn’t long, however, before he bought a six-string at a pawnshop and formed his first band on New Year’s Eve in 1958 while he was visiting his friend Pete Storm. Demetri was heading over to hang out and, for reasons still unexplained, decided to bring his guitar with him.
It was that night that the Playboys were formed, featuring Callas, Storm and their friend Hank Kline, who banged on a trash can for a drum. From that point forward, Callas’ days of playing the accordion, it would appear, were behind him.
“My brother was hooked by rock ’n’ roll from the very beginning,” Papageorgiou explained. “Mr. Reuben Caplan, our music teacher, always said he had extraordinary talents, and for a family that loves music, we took great pride in how he made it big.”
Perhaps the biggest influence that fueled his journey toward stardom came in the form of a random trip to Bladensburg. On it, Storm introduced Callas to the Perrymen, who performed with three saxophones. As Storm would later say, Callas was never the same after that concert. He immediately returned to Frederick to form the Shades in January 1960.
While the Shades had nominal success in and around the area, the project served as a precursor for what would bring him the most notoriety of his career — a job with the Four Seasons. Seasons keyboardist Bob Gaudio was on the lookout for a new guitarist for his band when he walked into a local club one night to find Callas onstage, plucking his heart out. At the end of the set, Gaudio offered Callas an audition for the band.
Joe Long, bassist for the Seasons, was given the task of helping Demetri learn Four Seasons songs. That’s something that probably should have taken weeks — or even months.
“But Joe told me very early on that he realized it was only going to take hours — and then Demetri would start showing him stuff,” said Remsburg, a former drummer for the Shades. “He was ready to roll really quick.”
Callas stepped in for Tommy DeVito in the Four Seasons, and though he would always maintain that DeVito could never truly be replaced, the guitar players shared a friendship whenever their paths crossed. Papageorgiou even said that upon hearing the news of Callas’ death, both DeVito and Frankie Valli, the singer paired with the Four Seasons, were very sad.
The “Telecaster Master,” as Callas was known in the D.C. music scene, would stay with the Four Seasons until 1974. His time with the band included the album “Chameleon,” which enjoyed some success in the U.K. due to “The Night,” a song that went as high as No. 7 on the charts across the pond.
Maybe his most memorable moment performing with Valli and the Four Seasons came in the form of his sister’s favorite song, which to this day, she says sums up the heartbreak of his career as succinctly as anything else.
“First, he was signed to Columbia Records, but Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix were signed at the same time, so they weren’t going to pay attention to him,” Papageorgiou explained. “Then, he joins the Four Seasons, but they change labels and go to Motown, where Berry Gordy didn’t have a concern about those guys because he was focused solely on getting Diana Ross into the movies. So, in 1974, my brother left.
“In 1975,” she added, “‘My Eyes Adored You’ takes off for the band. Even though he played on it, the song didn’t hit until he wasn’t in the band anymore.”
“He always seemed to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”
Grace of a dancer and as cool as Elvis
In the last 20 years of his life, Callas found steady work in Las Vegas, a place almost everybody agrees he enjoyed living in. While there, he landed gigs with Bill Haley and His Comets, as well as the Greg Miller Elvis Show, which, to Remsburg at least, was ironic.
“I always said he was Maryland’s Elvis,” Remsburg said with conviction. “If you didn’t know him or anything about his music, imagine someone with the grace of a dancer and the coolness of Elvis Presley. If you talk to anybody who was ever around him, they would agree 100 percent. When you came into a room and he was preparing to play, you felt like you were in the presence of greatness. And then, once he actually started playing, you knew it.”
There were other things that defined him — his passion for rescuing animals and his love of being the jokester in the room are two that prominently stick out to most people he knew. But since Callas was a kid from Frederick with a pawnshop guitar, it’s almost impossible not to recognize music as the driving force in his life.
“He was built like a superhero,” Remsburg added. “His guitar playing was masterful, and anyone who was lucky enough to hear him or watch him play was better for it. He made every musician around him better.”
Papageorgiou, meanwhile, choked up at the thought of what she’ll miss most about her brother.
“He always liked to keep you on the up and up,” she said, tears welling in the eyes that adored. “It’s just that he’s not in the world anymore.”
The rhythm of her weeping filled the air.
“I don’t know how else to say it.”
Yet as Frankie Valli sings “I won’t ever forget you,” she doesn’t have to.