"Sophocles Papas always had a wonderful sense of humor, a sparkle in his eye and unbounded energy," Sharon Isbin recalled yesterday. "He just kept on coming to his office and driving his car. I think it took great force of persuasion to make him let someone else drive, even when he was 90. And he probably went on telling dirty jokes right into his grave."
Dirty jokes? Yes, said Jeffrey Meyerriecks, one of his former students. "Probably in five or six different languages." Meyerriecks, a composer as well as a former student, had several of his works published by Papas. Other students, besides many well-known guitarists, included such celebrities as Bette Davis, Gregory Peck and Carl Sandburg, who never came to Washington without visiting Papas.
Isbin, one of the best-known young guitarists in America, has fond and grateful memories of the guitar virtuoso, composer, teacher and publisher who died in Washington yesterday at 92. Papas, an immigrant from Greece, launched the guitar as a classical musical instrument in America almost single-handedly when he opened his Guitar Shop in Washington in 1922.
Jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, who began to study classical guitar with Papas in 1950, remembers him mostly as a friend. "The guitar was our life, both of us," Byrd said yesterday from Annapolis, where he now lives. "And that gave us a lot in common. He was also a damned good cook and loved to have parties, and that was enough for a friendship right there."
Papas was the reason Byrd moved from New York to the Washington area, greatly enriching the jazz scene here. "I came down to Washington and moved down here to study with him," Byrd explained simply. "He opened up the whole world of classical guitar for me. He also wrote the first university curriculum for guitar in the United States -- at American University."
Guitarists -- friends, colleagues, former students and protege's -- who recalled Papas yesterday talked about a multifaceted personality whose enthusiasms besides music included people, conviviality, fine cooking and good living.
Papas was a publisher of guitar music -- his own compositions and those of others, as well as study methods and transcriptions. He founded the Guitar Society in Washington and aided the careers of many promising young players who have since become professionals, whether they were his students or not.
"A lot of young guitarists who became professionals went to work at the shop because he was there," recalled David Perry, a colleague and friend who was never one of Papas' students.
"In the 1960s, when the classical guitar began to take off in the United States, Sophocles' shop was one of the few places in this country where you could get a really good guitar," Perry said.
Papas' Guitar Shop became "the hub of guitar activity in the eastern United States," said John Marlow, former student and now the head of the guitar department Papas launched at American University. The shop was on M Street for years before it was moved to Connecticut Avenue, where it still operates under other ownership.
As an internationally known publisher of guitar music (under the name of Columbia Music), Marlow said, Papas tried to help guitarists achieve the maximum effect with minimum difficulty. "When he was brought a piece for publication, he would ask, 'Can an intermediate player do it comfortably?' And if not, he wouldn't publish it," Marlow recalled.
But as a teacher with a promising student, Isbin said, Papas could be highly exacting.
"What I learned from him, at a crucial time in my life, was the importance of self-discipline," she said. "I began studying with him when I was 14, commuting from Minneapolis, where I lived, to Washington, where he worked. I was proud of myself because I practiced an hour a day, but he was appalled and insisted that I should do four hours. He gave me scales and exercises, which I had never done, and he gave me a sense of responsibility. From him I learned the importance of preparation and the amount of work it takes to meet my responsibilities as a musician.
"He was demanding. When he recognized a person's talent, he wanted to develop its full potential, and he would not stand for laziness."
Papas died only a few weeks before the scheduled visit to Washington of Andres Segovia -- a friend since his American debut in 1928 -- who will be performing here next month. "He was the most influential promoter of the guitar, next to Segovia," said Washington guitarist Larry Snitzler who, like many American guitarists, studied with both masters.
Snitzler said that Papas mastered and transmitted many of Segovia's techniques, and for many years he was the only American teacher Segovia would recommend. "Young guitarists in Washington would meet people like Segovia and Julian Bream," Snitzler said, "because Sophocles and his wife Mercia would give a party for the visiting virtuoso and invite us all. She knew nothing about Greek cooking when she married him, but became an exquisite Greek chef within a year. Washington has become a major guitar center -- second, perhaps, only to New York -- because of his efforts."
In the early years, Snitzler said, Papas would lure students to the classical guitar by beginning to teach them on another instrument such as mandolin or banjo and then casually playing a classical guitar during a break in the lesson. "Within a year," he said, "they would all be studying classical guitar."
"His published music and the work of his students will keep his name alive," Byrd said. "He was an important, a historic part of the guitar world in this country -- a pioneer, when you could count American classical guitarists on the fingers of one hand.
"He was devoted to the guitar and to humanity. I would call him a humanitarian as well as a great guitarist."