Remembering the Calypso titan who graced both stage and screen
When Harry Belafonte–who passed away on April 25th at age 96–released his second album, Calypso, in 1956, he was already a star.
Earlier that year, he was the first singer to top the recently initiated weekly Billboard charts of best selling albums with Belafonte, but Calypso became a worldwide phenomenon. It was the first U.S. album to go Platinum – in today’s parlance – selling over a million copies in the first year of its release. It was also the first million seller in England. There were other Black stars at the time, but Belafonte eclipsed them all. Although the Caribbean grooves on Calypso may sound fairly laid back to modern ears, at the time they caused a sensation, helping to kick off the folk revival and lay the foundation for the world music boom. He was the first Black American to become a sex symbol, at a time when segregation in the U.S. was still virulent.
“That album [Calypso] almost failed in the planning stage,” Belafonte recalled in an interview many years ago. “There was a huge resistance on the part of the A&R reps, who were driven by the same demons of commercial acceptability that continue to plague us today. They didn’t think music from the Black Caribbean would play to mainstream America. I came to the table with the songs I wanted to sing, but the company was adamant about what I should and should not do. I took my appeal to George Merritt, the head of the company, and he agreed with me, so the album was made. When it became the first album to ever sell a million copies, all definitions crumbled and it forced the industry, however briefly, to question where the public’s taste was going.”
Belafonte’s early albums mixed West African hand drums, Cuban piano arrangements and South African rhythms, making him a true Godfather of World Beat music, a mantle he both acknowledges and downplays. “My parents traveled between New York and Jamaica, and they had Haitian friends, Cuban friends, Brazilian friends and they all made music. In those days New York City was a real musical melting pot, so it was natural to draw on those influences.”
In the ’50s, Belafonte introduced Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela to America, and they both went on to successful careers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until Paul Simon’s Graceland that the major labels began to realize that mainstream American audiences were interested in the sounds of Africa.
“Getting [Miriam and Hugh] on my albums was another struggle,” Belafonte said, back in 2010. “The excuse that time was that my success was a fluke, a unique moment in time, that I didn’t have ‘legs.’ I’m not mainstream, and while I play to healthy audiences in concert, the powers that be resist music that can’t be categorized. That’s why I created Niger Records, named after the river that’s the spine of Africa, to be able to record artists from Africa, rural black America, Brazil and the Caribbean. Paul Simon’s Graceland and the music of Disney’s Lion King prove music in the African mode can be successful, but there’s a tendency for Eurocentric minds to minimize the contributions that have been made by Africans and African Americans.”
Belafonte was born in 1927 in Harlem, New York. In the years he was growing up, the neighborhood was a hot bed for the creative arts, which might have influenced him to become an actor and singer. After a Navy hitch, he took acting lessons with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio with classmates Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Sidney Poitier. Before starting his singing career, he was a well-known actor in the American Negro Theatre Company and won a Tony Award for his participation in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac alongside Polly Bergan, Larry Kert (soon to star in West Side Story), and Tina Louise. Ironically, he started singing to help pay for his acting lessons. He formed a duo with a guitar-playing friend, Millard Thomas, and in the early 50s, knocked out the audiences at The Village Vanguard with a set that combined standards and folk songs. (Thomas stayed with Belafonte for most of his musical career, one of the unsung heroes of American folk music.)
Belafonte’s role in Otto Preminger’s hit musical Carmen Jones in 1954 made him a movie star. Even though an opera singer dubbed Belafonte’s singing in the film, he landed a record deal with RCA and his career took off.
His albums after Calypso included An Evening with Belafonte (1957), Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean (1957) and Belafonte Sings the Blues (1958). They showed the singer in a variety of settings and did well, but it was Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (1959) a live two record set, that was his next blockbuster, one of the few live albums to actually capture the electricity of a live performance.
Belafonte continued making albums in the ‘60s, but with the advent of The Beatles, the interest of the public waned. Solid efforts from those years include Jump Up Calypso (1961), The Midnight Special (1962) which blended big band, blues, gospel and soul and featured Bob Dylan in his first studio appearance, backing Belafonte on harmonica, An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba (1965) and Belafonte on Campus (1967).
For most of his life, Belafonte used his celebrity to shine a light on America’s racial injustices. He was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sat on the executive board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, raised money for civil right groups with benefit concerts, funded voter registration drives and got other artists involved in civil rights events like the March on Washington, the protests in Birmingham and the Selma to Montgomery March. President Kennedy appointed Belafonte cultural advisor to the Peace Corps in 1960, and he created the Belafonte Foundation to support African students studying in the United States.
In the 1980s, Belafonte initiated the We Are the World project. Belafonte was also one of the first artists involved in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1990, he served as host of the United Nations’ World Summit for Children; the conference produced ‘The World Declaration of the Survival, Protection and Development of Children.’
VIDEO: Harry Belafonte in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman
Since the 70s, Belafonte’s commitments to social justice and his acting career, have taken up much of his time. His films include Buck and the Preacher (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), White Man’s Burden (1995), Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996) and Bobby (2006).
His albums may not be million sellers, but that has more to do with the way the business has changed than Belafonte’s talent. He continues to be generous to young artists and still blends music from all over the African Diaspora into his sound. His last live album, An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Friends, delved deep into the rhythms of West Africa and the Caribbean. Favorites such as “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jamaica Farewell” were radically reworked by the band’s musical director Richard Bona.
“Richard is from Cameroon, and is one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever met,” Belafonte said at the time. “He’s a master of makossa [a dance rhythm that combines jazz and indigenous styles], jazz, his own explorations of traditional and contemporary music, high life, reggae and more. He plays bass, guitar and acoustic African instruments, and has toured with the Joe Zawinul Syndicate. In our work, he’s made me listen carefully to the rhythm, and I now hear accents in places I never heard them before, which has given me a new way of phrasing. At the early rehearsals he began doing things my way, but I told him I wanted to learn his way of making music. That’s what keeps me on my toes; seeing the material through his musical filter keeps the old songs fresh. In music there’s always a new approach you can take. Each time I sing, especially as my life experience has grown, I find new ways to add nuances, new harmonies to embroider the melody, new ways to keep it immediate for the audience and myself.”
Belafonte died at his home of congestive heart failure. He will be greatly missed.
VIDEO: Harry Belafonte performs “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”