TARPON SPRINGS — No Greek celebration could ever thrive without live music.
You know it when you hear it, a combination of sliding keyboards, electric violin and drums that gets the heart stirring. George Soffos grew up with it and devoted his life to perfecting it.
Mr. Soffos was a master of the bouzouki, the metallic-sounding cousin of the mandolin and guitar and a staple of Greek music.
His playing moved some to solo dancing and stilled others into mute amazement. Aficionados said he was one of the best bouzouki players in the world.
Mr. Soffos, a local treasure who kept several Greek musical styles alive, died Jan. 8 of an apparent heart attack. He was 59.
"He could bring warmth into you with his love songs, he could excite you and rock you off your chair," said Dino Theofilos, who plays keyboards for Ellada, Mr. Soffos' band.
Sometimes, when he took off on a masterful riff, Theofilos couldn't help himself. "He would look over and I would brush my arm, because he gave me goose bumps," said Theofilos, 60.
Some call it kefi, those peak moments of music-inspired passion musicians live for.
"It's a spirit, a duende, you're sort of one with it," said Tina Bucuvalas, the curator of arts and historical resources for Tarpon Springs who considers Mr. Soffos "the Eric Clapton of the bouzouki."
Mr. Soffos played in most major cities in the United States and Greece. Top musicians from Greece wanted to play with him, said Meletios Pouliopoulos, a Boston radio DJ who hosts a program on Greek music.
"I believe that George was a master of the instrument," Pouliopoulos said. "Sometimes people judge someone's playing by how fast they can play and that sort of thing. But what I noticed in George was that when he played he had expression. He was able to do something with the instrument that not a lot of people can achieve, by really giving it its own voice."
Mr. Soffos believed that the bouzouki spoke for him as well, especially after cancer surgery in 1998 altered his ability to speak.
Despite its ubiquity, the bouzouki has become entrenched in Greek music only since the early 20th century, a by-product of Turkish immigrants. It features a bowl-shaped back similar to a lute; a sharp sound like a mandolin, only pitched lower; and unique tunings.
"It's strong. It really rips into your heart, the strength of it," Bucuvalas said.
George Soffos wanted to master it since his childhood in Warren, Ohio. His Greek parents encouraged his interest. They sent him to study with John Tatasopoulos in Washington, D.C., a top-tier bouzouki player.
Mr. Soffos lived and studied with Tatasopoulos for two years. By 17, he was headlining clubs in Los Angeles, New York and Athens, Greece.
His friends say it was never about the adulation, even then. "George was probably the most humble, understated person around," Bucuvalas said.
In the mid 1990s, he moved to the Clearwater area. In 1997, doctors diagnosed throat cancer, a possible consequence of two-pack-a-day smoking. Surgery on his larynx forced him to relearn eating, drinking and speaking. In recent years, he lived in Holiday and taught the bouzouki.
He had been divorced since the 1990s and became romantically involved with Bucuvalas three years ago.
In recent years, the state of Florida honored Mr. Soffos with a Florida Folk Heritage award and other distinctions.
Mr. Soffos' health dipped with the flu in December. He seemed to have recovered and played gigs on New Year's Eve and Epiphany on Jan. 6.
On Jan. 8, Mr. Soffos called Bucuvalas, asking her to bring some aspirin. She arrived minutes later and found him dead.
Though he had played on other musicians' albums, Mr. Soffos had never recorded an album of his own. That is about to change. Bucuvalas and other friends are compiling his work and will release an album this spring to help his children.