Harry Belafonte’s singing career started as an intermission filler at a jazz club
Only a few years later, he became the first solo artist to sell a million copies of a record
Harry Belafonte, the music, stage, film, and television star and civil rights giant who passed away April 25 at the age of 96, originally had no intention of becoming a singing star. Indeed, at first the whole idea seemed almost laughable. It was early 1949, and Belafonte had never sung professionally in his life. Yet he was being pitched to perform at arguably New York’s hottest jazz club, the Royal Roost in Midtown.
This was before Belafonte became one of the first Black actors to achieve headlining status in Hollywood; before he joined the exclusive EGOT club (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony winner), before he befriended Martin Luther King Jr. and became one of the civil rights movement’s most consequential supporters and activists, before he used his celebrity status to help push for the end of apartheid in South Africa. Back in 1949, Belafonte was just a 22-year-old struggling actor trying to keep it together.
He was a regular at the Royal Roost and had become friends with many of the musicians who frequently played there, including influential jazz tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
“For a 25-cent bottle of beer, you could hang out at the bar and watch until the wee hours of the morning a parade of the greatest forces of modern jazz music,” Belafonte recalled in a 2011 interview with radio host Kojo Nnamdi. “And night after night, looking at these artists, I just fell madly in love with everything about them. And one day I had expressed my great difficulty in finding work as a Black actor. Not much was around.”
It was then suggested to Belafonte that he should try his hand at being a vocalist. Many of the jazz artists there had seen him perform in a stage adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men, a role that required him to sing. Young believed that Belafonte would be the perfect set-up man to fill in during intermission. He reached out to Royal Roost promoter and booking agent Monte Kay, who was intrigued by the premise.
“I thought it was a lark and kind of an interesting play idea,” mused Belafonte, “but then it began to sink in.” After Belafonte admitted that he had no musical repertoire and couldn’t play an instrument, Kay deadpanned, “We have to really start from ground zero.”
Young’s pianist, Al Haig, was recruited to help put together a set list of standards to help Belafonte get off the ground. A few months later, the nervous Harlem kid was ready for his Royal Roost debut. But what was originally supposed to be a two-man act featuring Belafonte and Haig on the keys turned into a history-making showing.
Before Belafonte could even open his mouth he was joined onstage by bassist Tommy Potter, drummer Max Roach and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Unbeknownst to the young newcomer, the all-star quartet wanted to make sure his first gig was a success.
“That was my backup band,” Belafonte remembered of the surreal experience. “A little bit later Miles Davis stepped in somewhat reluctantly, but he didn’t want to miss anything … he didn’t miss much anyway. But this is how I was launched into the music business.”
Belafonte saw music not only as a business but also as a vehicle for change. After crossing over into the lucrative supper club circuit, Belafonte was booked for a two-week engagement at Martha Raye’s Five O’Clock Club in Miami in the fall of 1950. Yet he was angered that he was being forced to sing in front of a white audience in a South defined by Jim Crow.
Belafonte quit after only seven days, returned to New York and immersed himself in the growing folk scene. Scrapping the pop ballads, he put together a stage show at the Village Vanguard that leaned heavily on the songs of his Jamaican roots and was soon on his way to superstardom. He signed a deal with Victor RCA and released his signature hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and follow-up “Jamaica Farewell.”
The release of Belafonte’s album Calypso in 1956 sparked frenzied interest in West Indian music and became the first album by a solo artist to sell 1 million copies (a few months before Elvis Presley would achieve the same feat). Yet the album almost didn’t happen.
“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,” Belafonte said in a 1997 interview with SFGate. “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.”
Suddenly Belafonte had a new title: “King of Calypso.” His concerts were sellouts around the world. Among other “transcendent” crossover Black performers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong, Belafonte was the highest paid in the industry.
Not everyone was happy with his success, though. In Trinidad, the birthplace of calypso, Belafonte was dismissed as an inauthentic interloper. Yet he always gave credit to the originators of the island music he so loved and balked at the notion that he was a pretender. “Purism is the best cover-up for mediocrity,” he said in a 1959 New York Times interview. “If there is no change, we might just as well go back to the first ‘ugh,’ which must have been the first song.”
Soon Belafonte was everywhere. He earned a 1954 Tony Award for his role in the Broadway show John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. He starred opposite screen siren Dorothy Dandridge in the film musical Carmen Jones, based on the Bizet opera Carmen. And with the release of the 1959 science fiction film The World, the Flesh and the Devil, he joined dear friend and Hollywood change agent Sidney Poitier as one of the few Black actors to headline a major studio movie. But music always kept calling Belafonte back.
He released another calypso album, Jump Up Calypso in 1961, which became his fourth million-seller. Belafonte was credited with introducing American audiences to South African singer Miriam Makeba and championed her future husband, jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, during his early visit to the U.S. A largely unknown Bob Dylan played harmonica on Belafonte’s 1962 release The Midnight Special.
Yet Belafonte wanted more, which at times came at the expense of his high-flying music career. Belafonte was on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. He and Poitier bankrolled various civil rights organizations and he got in a life-threatening car chase with the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 as they delivered a bag filled with $70,000 in cash to the Freedom Summer volunteers in Greenwood, Mississippi.
And while there were other recording triumphs such as the 1964 top 40 Billboard album Belafonte at The Greek Theatre and the top 5 adult contemporary hit “A Strange Song” in 1967, the music business was shifting. The Beatles, Motown, James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Stax Records and Jimi Hendrix were dominating the culture and Belafonte sounded out of place. Yet he still found a way to make powerful musical statements.
When Belafonte appeared on British singer/actress Petula Clark’s 1968 primetime television special (a show that prompted racist calls for censorship after Clark, a white woman, touched the arm of Belafonte, a Black man), he premiered up-and-coming folk artist Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” And he joined the host of Petula on a duet of “On the Path of Glory,” an anti-war song written during the height of the Vietnam War protest movement.
By the 1970s, Belafonte was still a concert draw across the globe and his ability to see what was next on the horizon seemed to be innate. His 1977 Columbia Records release Turn the World Around was one of the first recordings to amplify world music, well before the genre’s commercial mainstream explosion. The following year, Belafonte was a guest on an episode of The Muppet Show on which he performed the spiritual “Turn the World Around.” It was Muppets creator Jim Henson’s favorite show, so much so that following Henson’s death in 1990 Belafonte was asked to sing the song at his memorial service. In 1984, he executive produced and helped score Beat Street, a musical drama that was one of the earliest mainstream movies to spotlight the rise of hip-hop culture.
The film is most notable for featuring breakdancing crews the Bronx Rockers and the Breakers, future rap legends Doug E. Fresh and Kool Moe Dee, pioneering female trio Us Girls, and the then reigning king of hip-hop, Grandmaster Melle Mel, who warmly recalled his conversations with Belafonte.
“They didn’t need us to be in the movie,” said Grandmaster Melle Mel, who wrote and performed the track “Beat Street Breakdown” for the film, during a lecture in February at California State University, Northridge. “They just wanted us to write the song. Harry is an eloquent guy, so I’m transfixed, just listening to him. I was inspired by his conversation.”
There were more musical landmarks. In 1985, Belafonte was one of the organizers of the famine relief charity single “We Are the World,” which featured an all-star lineup led by the anthem’s songwriters, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and producer Quincy Jones. The record raised $75 million in the fight against poverty in Africa.
And when Belafonte’s music appeared in the 1988 Tim Burton comedy Beetlejuice, a new generation of fans was introduced to him. A decade later, in his 1997 PBS special An Evening With Harry Belafonte and Friends, his distinct voice still registered urgency. He tapped into his classic material from the 1950s and early 1960s, such as an audience-rousing version of “Matilda,” a gospel-fueled flip of “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and the sobering “Dangerous Times.”
The special’s official soundtrack was Belafonte’s first album in nine years. And even as he stopped recording, music heads were picking up on his catalog. When Lil Wayne dropped his uproarious 2010 single “6 Foot 7 Foot,” featuring Cory Gunz, which sampled Belafonte’s “The Banana Boat Song,” blog era hip-hop fans were turned on to the man’s magic.
Today Belafonte’s music remains timeless. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t planned to be a singer.