Even during their studies with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Beatles probably had no idea an instrument called an oud existed. On the other hand, oudist John Bilezikjian had no idea who they were.
“When I first started out, I had no idea who The Beatles were, or Simon and Garfunkel. Then one day I heard ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and I started crying. I asked my wife, ‘what is that song?’ and I couldn’t believe she had the record and played it for me. My whole life until then had been classical music and Turkish 78s.”
Bilezikjian had grown up in the San Fernando Valley in a large family with strong traditions in music and its Armenian heritage. His musical life began at age five with violin lessons from his father, Andrew, himself a classical violinist. During these early years, the boy listened to 78 RPM recordings brought from Turkey. In particular, he was fascinated by the sound of the oud, an ancient Persian instrument popular on the old albums.
“What instrument is that?” he asked his mother.
She brought out his grandfather’s oud and placed it on the boy’s lap. As he experimented with its 11 strings, he was unaware of its roots that reach back 2,500 years. He didn’t care that it was the forerunner to the lute or that it had no frets. He just wanted to play the wonderful sounds he heard on the scratchy albums and in his home every weekend.
By his 10th birthday, Bilezikjian had formed his first band with musical buddies from his church. They quickly found themselves in demand for all sorts of events within the Armenian community.
In his late teens, Bilezikjian met guitarist Michael Kollander and they began playing together as a duo. Not long after hearing that first Simon & Garfunkel song, Bilezikjian took a chance at an Armenian event.
“I had a good ear and I played the song on my oud. The audience went nuts! I saw that they really liked what we did. So I started learning Beatles songs and the other music my wife had on the shelf.”
This was all the pair needed.
We were known as Kollander & Bilezikjian. We played rock n roll, country music. We would sing together. When we did country, I would play the violin. I would play bass when Michael wanted to do Bossa Nova; oud or bass when we did rock ‘n roll. No drums, we were just a duo.”
“We played at Hungry Jose’s in Belmont Shores in Long Beach. We were in the lounge. We were in Marina del Rey at the Lobster House. The Belage Hotel in Beverly Hills. We played in the Valley and in Palm Springs.”
They considered themselves a standard nightclub act, but one thing needed tweaking – the oud. The large gourd shaped instrument is played with the musician sitting and holding it in his lap. They felt it just didn’t look right. The style was for groups to stand together. To keep up with the times, they needed to turn the traditional instrument into something that could be played standing up.
“We thought we would be more viable for potential nightclub owners,” according to Bilezikjian. “I knew he was a luthier of some sort and I said Michael we have to make a flat oud.”
In 1969, they set to work. They found Brazilian rosewood and Turkish spruce. Within a year, they created the first flat-back oud and began using it in their act. The redesigned folk instrument even found its way to Las Vegas where Bilezikjian played back-up for Little Richard.
“Bumps Blackwell was Little Richard’s manager. He used to come to my house and my wife would cook dinner for him,” said Bilezikjian. “I played “Long Tall Sally” for him in my living room on this flat back oud. He was intrigued with this instrument and that I played Western music with it. He made the arrangements for me to play with Little Richard for about three months at the International Hotel.”
“Baby, woo! We’re having some fun tonight!” recalled Bilezikjian.
Eventually, the now seasoned performers said a friendly farewell to follow different paths. Kollander got a job playing guitar for Charo.
Bilezikjian returned to his original ouds. He became a sought after studio musician, contributing to dozens of film scores (“Syriana”, “Beowulf”, “Schindler’s List”). He performed with Leonard Cohen during his tour of Europe and worked with rock singer Robert Palmer. He created his own music company, Dantz Records, and became a popular musician in Middle Eastern cabarets.
His father would have been proud to see the boy he had trained on a miniature violin take the stage with the Boston Pops. He could never have imagined that his son would be given permission by the late composer Joaquin Rodrigo to transcribe and arrange his “Concierto de Aranjuez”, for oud and orchestra.
On August 21, 2011, Bilezikjian will be performing in concert at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center. In celebration of the 50 years he has dedicated to music, the concert will include friends with whom he has performed over the years, including members of his first band, the Halehs, formed when he was 10 years old.