"Belafonte At Carnegie Hall"
RCA Victor (1959)
1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
Harry Belafonte is a name that will mean everything to your grandparents, hopefully something to your parents, and probably nothing to you (presuming you are in fact my age). But, I will name his most lasting song and you will slap your collective foreheads: "Day O," also known as the "Banana Boat Song," the track that became the virtual theme for "Beetlejuice" and the most recognizable sample of 2011 in Lil Wayne's "Six Foot Seven Foot." His most acclaimed performance, "Belafonte At Carnegie Hall," demonstrates that he could go far beyond his Calypso roots by breaking the night up into three cultural sections that also make for convenient chapters in this blog post.
The first five-song "act" is "Moods of The American Negro," a title that might sound offensive to those that don't know better. For all of the albums with titles like "Calypso" and his biggest hits like "O Day," Belafonte was born in the heart of Harlem. Granted, most of the tracks here deal with blues in the style of the Southern United States, and congas and the house orchestra don't make this much of a blues festival. The walking-bass intro to "Cotton Fields" summarizes the more popular and jazzy approach Belafonte takes. The flair from Belafonte's Broadway-certified voice doesn't make him a Muddy Waters-replacement candidate.
Belafonte's biggest draw, his Calypso and Caribbean fare, makes up the second act. Defining a "calypso" is a hard thing to do, because the genre combined the native musical forms of many Caribbean island nations with the musical traditions of many occupying European nations. In Belafonte's case (the singer had spent several years during his childhood in Jamaica, his mother's homeland), this takes the form of standards, including "Day O," and R&B-tinged ballads like "Jamaica Farewell." This third of the album is best, not only because the songs are the most recognizable, but their fun nature allows Belafonte's natural showmanship and humor to come out. During "Mama Look A Boo Boo," a humorous tale of an ugly man struggling to cope with his disrespectful children, the vocalist chuckles as he sings the chorus, due both to its amusing lyrics and his style of delivery. The laughs continue into "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)," another standard.
During the final portion of the show, Belafonte tackles songs from the rest of the world's cultures. Some are successful; the vocalist's take on the Jewish classic "Hava Nageela" is surprisingly on point. Others, less so, including his dreary attempt at the Irish standard "Danny Boy."
Belafonte's crowd pleasing personality makes Calypso closer "Matilda" one of the more entertaining live tracks of all time. He opens with an attempt at an Axl Rose-ian whistling solo, but quickly stumbles on the melody. He takes a potential momentum killer and turns it into gold by laughing and mocking himself with deliberate gaffes. After delivering the song's chorus several times himself, he proceeds to direct different groups of musicians to sing, followed by different sections of audience. Among the more humorous calls to voice are when he tells the conductor to tackle it alone ("Good heavens, Bob...You can't turn your back on the people like that, man") and any woman more than 40 years old (After an initial silence, he repeats the request: "Women over 40. I know they're out there").
Belafonte's popularity with my generation may have suffered because he hit his stride just after the age of the Rat Pack, when the singing of standards was at its peak. However, Belafonte's accomplishments and influences include popularizing Calypso, being the first artist to sell a million copies of a record ("Calypso") and being the first black man to win an Emmy (for his TV special, "Tonight With Belafonte"). Regardless of these citations, you should know him just for the stage personality he flashes here.
INTERESTING FACT: During his first professional appearance as a vocalist, Belafonte was backed by a relatively unknown jazz group, The Charlie Parker Band, which featured Parker, Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach. Considering the careers those three would have ahead of them, it's amazing anyone remembered Belafonte was there at all.