Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Anthony Shaptini
posted on: Sep 2, 2020
By: Richard Breaux/Arab America Contributing Writer
Anthony George Shaptini was born Anthony Elias George on July 29, 1893, in Saint Louis, Missouri to Elias and Mary George, immigrants to the United States from Chabtine, Greater Syria (now Lebanon). Mary George had four sons, Anthony was her second child and three daughters.
One document suggests Anthony was baptized at Saint Mary’s Church in Saint Louis. Although most documents list Saint Louis as Anthony’s birthplace, the 1895 Iowa Census lists his birthplace as Syria. Much of his life is a mystery, but we occasionally catch glimpses of details in his life only to have him slip quietly back into obscurity.
In 1917, he lived in Keokuk, Iowa and worked as a barber. During World War I, he served as a Private First Class in the 33rd Division of the Sanitary Squad #2 Medical Department in the US Army. According to Arab American scholar Philip Hitti, some 13, 965 Syrian/Lebanese Americans served in World War I. He was honorably discharged 5 July 1919. One year later, his family including his mother, a brother, and a sister remained in Keokuk.
Between October 1923 and April 1924, Anthony George Shaptini recorded twenty-three songs on the Maloof record label. The Maloof offices occupied a small space on Washington Street in lower Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood. The actual recording took place at the Gennett Record studios in Richmond, Indiana – a much shorter distance for Shaptini to travel.
Anthony George adopted the name Shaptini because his parents were from town of Chabtine in the Boutron District of northern Lebanon.
In 1929, he married Canadian-born Sarah Zade and the couple had their first child Elias Anthony. The family resettled in Detroit where Sarah had three additional children: Mariana, Joanne, and Diane.
Anthony George ’s 1938 travel document explains that in December 1933, he officially changed his name to Anthony George Shaptini. Anthony G. Shaptini and Sarah Shaptini operated grocery stores in Detroit from 1930 through 1946, at which point he and Sarah relocated and opened a grocery store in Port Huron, Michigan. Anthony continued to do some minor singing for commercial radio spots and often sang at parties, social events, and Lebanese-Syrian celebrations.
In 1947, Shaptini spoke out against the spread Communist influence in France and the United States, when asked by the Port Huron newspaper about possibility of Communist takeover after World War II.
He and Sarah opened their 6000 square foot Port Huron store in 1946. Customers swarmed into the shop, but few knew that Shaptini ever had a singing career. Six years later, the Shaptini’s hired two of their daughters, and had nine additional employees.
In the 1950s, the Shaptinis continued to run their store and the children were making their marks on their respective college campuses. Shapitini became a fan favorite for singing, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Newspaper ads for Shaptini Super Market included jingles Shaptini himself sang, often changing the words to popular songs to promote his store. He also sang his jingles for radio advertising spots on the local radio station. Whether friends and fans knew anything of Shaptini’s previous music career remains unclear.
In 1951, burglars got away with $2200 in cash from the Shaptini Super Market safe. No one was ever caught or arrested for the crime. Shaptini died from sudden illness in 16 February 1955. At the time of his death, his wife, four children, and six siblings were still living. One brother and one sister still lived in Keokuk, Iowa. Like so many Arab American musicians from the 1920s, his name and the details of his singing career have faded into relative obscurity.
Special thanks to Tom M., Diane, and Christina M.
Richard M. Breaux is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse from Oakland, California. His courses and research explore the social and cultural histories of African Americans and Arab Americans in the 20th Century.