Harry Belafonte has worn many hats in his 84 years: recording artist, film star, civil rights crusader, tireless humanitarian. Though he gracefully and modestly bowed out of performing some years back with little fanfare, Belafonte has returned to the spotlight this month to narrate a documentary on his life and author an autobiography. Though the book is entitled My Song, the film and its musical companion both bear the name Sing Your Song. Sony Masterworks’ collection is a sixteen-track soundtrack to the film rather than a strict “greatest hits” collection, and is a timely reminder of the singer’s great legacy.
Though born in New York, Belafonte spent many of his formative years in Jamaica, and the rich music he encountered as a boy there would have a profound effect on his future life. When he returned to New York, he attended George Washington High School and later served a stint in the United States Navy. After World War II, Belafonte took the first steps in building a career in entertainment, studying acting in the heady environment of the late 1940s and early 1950s. RCA Victor signed the young talent in 1952, but his career on the stage wasn’t over yet, and he picked up both Tony and Theatre World Awards for his performance in 1953’s John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. Just a few short months before Almanac opened on Broadway, Belafonte’s “Matilda” (heard on Sing Your Song) caught the public’s fancy, becoming a staple in concert. But even greater things were yet to come.
1956’s Calypso introduced many Americans to the genre, and became the first LP ever to surpass the one-million sales mark. It introduced two more smash signature songs for Belafonte, “Jump in the Line” and, of course, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” Both are included on the new compilation. Belafonte went from one high point to another in his long tenure at RCA Victor, including successful 1959 and 1960 stands at Carnegie Hall (both recorded by the label), a performance at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural at the invitation of Frank Sinatra, and inevitable Hollywood fame with films like Oscar Hammerstein II’s Bizet adaptation Carmen Jones (1954) and the controversial Islands in the Sun (1957) in which Belafonte’s character is romanced by Joan Fontaine, a Caucasian.
This wouldn’t be the last time Belafonte bravely tackled race relations in public view. Two more groundbreaking moments in his distinguished career came in 1968. He accepted NBC’s invitation to fill in for Johnny Carson for an entire week of The Tonight Show, and he welcomed guests including Robert F. Kennedy, Lena Horne, Bill Cosby, The Smothers Brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The same year, Belafonte guest-starred on a television special starring Petula Clark. During the duet performance of Clark’s composition “On the Path of Glory,” she gently touched her co-star’s arm. Doyle Lott, representing sponsor Chrysler, objected, but Clark and her husband/producer Claude Wolff refused to reshoot. Lott later apologized to Belafonte, claiming his words had been relayed inaccurately; Belafonte recalled responding, “Mr. Lott, I think you’re being disingenuous with me. It was you who said those words. And your apology comes a hundred years too late.”
Musically speaking, Belafonte also didn’t wish to be pigeonholed as a strictly calypso artist; in fact, his folk-themed 1962 album Midnight Special featured the very first appearance on record of the young Bob Dylan. (This wasn’t Belafonte’s first folk album, however, and the new compilation includes one track from 1956’s Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites.) The former Robert Zimmerman supplied harmonica on the title track!
Hit the jump for more, including the full track listing with discography as well as a link to order!
Sing Your Song‘s earliest track is 1952’s “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” and the majority draws on the singer’s RCA output. It features four tracks from 1956’s self-titled Belafonte, and two from Calypso. Each of his Carnegie Hall concerts is represented by one track, and there’s one from his joint album with Miriam Makeba. Though Belafonte stayed with RCA until 1973, eventually adding songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Neil Diamond, Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon into his repertoire, there’s nothing from the label past 1966’s Calypso in Brass. The set concludes with two tracks from Belafonte’s 1977 CBS Records “comeback” album, Turn the World Around including the title track which he memorably performed on television’s The Muppet Show and again for its creator Jim Henson’s memorial service.
For those interested in exploring Belafonte’s life in music further, the 2-CD The Essential Harry Belafonte (2005, Legacy) might fit the bill. Many of Belafonte’s albums haven’t yet made the transition to compact disc but The Essential is a fine sampler. Harry Belafonte’s Sing Your Song: The Music is in stores now from Sony Masterworks.
Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song: The Music (Masterworks 88697 93951-2, 2011)
- Mark Twain
- Mama Look a Boo Boo
- Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)
- Cocoanut Woman
- Banana Boat Song (Day-O)
- Island in the Sun
- Jump Down, Spin Around
- Man Smart (Woman Smarter)
- Jamaica Farewell
- My Angel (Malaika) – feat. Miriam Makeba
- Jump in the Line
- A Hole in the Bucket (Live) – feat. Odetta
- Turn the World Around
- Can’t Cross Over (River Come Down)
Track 1 from Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, RCA Victor LPM-1022, 1954
Tracks 2, 4, 8 & 11 from Belafonte, RCA Victor LPM-1150, 1956
Track 3 from Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, RCA Victor LSO-6006, 1959
Tracks 5 & 13 from Calypso in Brass, RCA Victor LSP-3658, 1966
Tracks 6 & 10 from Calypso, RCA Victor LPM-1248, 1956
Track 7 from Sings of the Caribbean, RCA Victor LPM-1505, 1957
Track 9 from RCA Victor single 47-4892, 1952
Track 12 from An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, RCA Victor LSP-3420, 1965
Track 14 from Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall, RCA Victor LSO-6007, 1960
Tracks 15 & 16 from Turn the World Around, CBS 86045, 1977