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World Music Legends

Harry Belafonte

By Howard Mandel
Published October 9, 2005


Today, as during his salad days during the first quake of late 20th century pop culture, Harry Belafonte’s name, face, voice and talent loom huge among international crossover stars. He’s the folk singer as superstar, a cultural icon whose 1956 album, Calypso (RCA), topped the charts for a remarkable 31 weeks at the peak of the Eisenhower administration.

Born March 1, 1927 in New York City’s Harlem, Belafonte went to live with his mother in her native Jamaica at age eight. He returned to the United States five years later, but dropped out of school at 15. He eventually joined the Navy, got married and discovered the theater. That led to singing engagements and, by 1949, his first recording. But it was Calypso, following two other top 5 albums released in 1956 that provided the breakthrough. The first long-playing album ever to sell a million copies, Calypso included “Day-O,” “Jamaica Farewell,” “Brown Skin Girl” and “Man Smart (Woman Smarter),” songs that established Belafonte as the first American artist (black or otherwise) to widely disseminate Caribbean island forms. Initially Belafonte attracted urbane and liberal listeners, but he quickly went beyond that crowd, reaching people deep in the heart of the heartland.

Belafonte was, and still is, a gifted singer, whose strong suits are interpretation, delivery, conviction and ultimate sunniness; he believes himself a teacher, and seems to have been a prophet, too. His intent and integrity have been scrutinized and assailed, but his efforts—especially as they superseded commercial activity to serve as vocal, moral and financial support of Martin Luther King’s civil rights initiatives, the USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” UNICEF and his friend Nelson Mandela’s negotiated revolution in South Africa—bear all tests, including time. If Belafonte’s music in the ’50s bore arrangements and production touches that in hindsight sound designed to soften, “beautify,” of simply sell, it had undeniable melodic hooks, sly humor in its verses, and a point of view it spent no energy to disguise.

“Paul Robeson, my mentor, once said to me, ‘Harry, get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.’” That’s how Belafonte to this day introduces “The Banana Boat Song,” a.k.a. “Day-O.” After four decades, “Day-O” has won the warmth and dignity Belafonte finds in it, and whether you’re sitting in a banana boat, in a theater seat or on your bed starting at the TV, you almost have to (that’s okay, you’re urged to) sing along.

            He’s been criticized over the decades as being a carpetbagger, one who re-packaged ethnic sounds to make them palatable to American tastes—particularly white tastes. But, he says, “I reject the concept of ‘purity.’ Early in my career what annoyed me was not that I was considered inauthentic, but that I was being

Recommended Recordings


Calypso (RCA)

Belafonte At Carnegie Hall (RCA)

Very Best Of Harry Belafonte (RCA)