Timos Zachariou, beloved Greek keyboardist
Hailing from the island of Crete, Timos Zachariou was a keyboardist who toured top venues in Europe, Africa and Australia before giving it all up to immigrate to Sacramento. Yet the ever-smiling virtuoso would have a second act: After Jerry Brown heard Zachariou play in the late ’70s, he was gracing the parlors of Greek-American business magnates like Angelo Tsakopoulos and Alex Spanos, as well as serial headline-makers like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now retired, Zachariou still holds a weekly appointment as the master of revelry at Yianni’s Bar & Grill in Carmichael. He still plays manic Greek music, but he’s also quick to summon some Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson and Neil Diamond against the flickering candlelight. And if Zachariou gets bored waiting for the bar-side dancing to start, he’ll use the karaoke feature on his keyboard to let him play over the top of the theme to The Dukes of Hazzard, or Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Around Carmichael, he’s a one-named local legend—he’s just Timos.
What was it like immigrating to the United States in 1976?
I’d been playing in Australia. They’d kept me for seven years, performing in Sydney at a place that seated 800 people every Friday night. But my wife, who’s also Greek, didn’t like living in Australia because the climate was pretty heavy. We moved to Athens. … My mother and my brother were living in Sacramento and San Jose, so we came to visit. … I went to an interview [with immigration officials] and they said, “You can play Greek music?” I said, “That and classical and anything.” They said, “Welcome.”
How’d you start becoming such an institution here that same year?
I found a job playing keyboard here at Zorba’s [in 1976]. One night we had a beautiful singer here from LA, doing mixed music—Greek and American—and we were playing together when, at 2 o’clock in the morning, a guy came in through the door. It was raining. He was in a long coat. The singer said, “Oh, the governor is here.” I didn’t know that word, “governor.” President or prime minister, yeah; but what’s a governor? So, I walked up to the door and said, “Sir, by law, we have to stop the music now, we’re closed.” He looked at me and said, “I’m the law.” That’s when the girl running the place said, “Oh, hi, Jerry,” and kissed him on the cheek. … He asked me, “Do you have a telephone? Because we have so many events, maybe I’d need you.” Only after he left did the girl explain, “He’s the president of California.” (Laughs.) Woooow.
Did that open doors?
Yeah, I started playing at the Capitol. I met all the state senators. They kept getting my number, and then I’d be playing parties and fundraisers. I was so busy, it was unbelievable. … I met Bob Hope. I gave music lessons to Vlade Divac’s children.
When did you meet the Clintons?
I met Bill Clinton the first time he came to Sacramento when he was at the house of Phil Angelides. Ah, Angelides—at his piano, you’d see all the kings. Over the years, Angelo Tsakopoulos gave me so many jobs, that included playing for Hilary Clinton. But Congressman Bob Matsui tried to introduce me to Hillary years before that, back when she was First Lady.
You also have up-close pics of President Obama?
Yeah, I played for him at his birthday party. It was in Chicago. They gave me this nice thank-you card. (Pulls out a postcard of the Obama family with a handwritten note from Michelle.)
Which politician do you remember most?
Gov. Pete Wilson. I was more close to him than any of the others. It’s because he and his wife like to sing. They’d have parties every two weeks for singalongs. I have many good memories with them.
What do you like about playing at Yianni’s?
It’s like a family. It’s the same people, and that’s good. They know me and I know them. And the new owner, Markos, I’ve known him since he was a baby.
Do have a favorite song to play?
No, I create my own music. I will play many standards, you know, for the old people. But if it gets crazy in here, then it’s pop music.
Sometimes when you’re playing, customers will stand up and sing?
Oh, yeah, anybody can sing. It’s OK. They’re having fun. In the old days, when I was in Athens, I was playing at a venue that seated 2,000 people. It was the time of the Junta, when the military ran the country, and singers would just come up to the stage and sing. They would all be in tuxedos. Not here in Sacramento. You don’t see tuxedos, here. But I love Sacramento.