When 'World Music' became a phrase on everyone's lips a few years ago, it seemed to imply that an interest in other country's musics was something previously unthought-of. Harry Belafonte must have shaken his head. He had truly been there and done that. He had brought the music of the world, in particular the Caribbean, into the mainstream of popular music, and he'd done it almost singlehandedly. But there was much more to Harry Belafonte. In a time of stifling conformity and in a very different politically correct era, he had the courage to flaunt his left-wing sympathies and exhibit fierce pride in his Afro-Caribbean heritage. He was not only left-wing when it was literally a crime, and not only pridefully black when the most successful black artists were trying their damndest to be white, but scored his biggest hits during the rock 'n' roll revolution without concession to the new music. Several generations first experienced humanity in music and saw a commonality between their music and the music of other lands in these recordings.
The awards now come regularly as one institution after another lines up to honor Harold George Belafonte. In his acceptance speeches, Belafonte is invariably gracious, but always cognizant of how far he has come, and how many goals remain unrealized. "I've always accepted the fact that there's a price to be paid for those who choose to step into the waters of social development, civil rights, fighting against racism," he said at one commencement. "If one accepts that as a consequence for such behavior, you free yourself of trying to play both ends against the middle. I would rather have not been blacklisted, and perhaps made enough money to get me a private plane to fly me anywhere in the world on an instant's notice, but if in order to achieve that end I have to sell my soul, the answer is no. I never would have traded what I had with Dr. King, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Paul Robeson, for another dollar."
Belafonte's thoughts turn often to Robeson, a man who towered over his time and served as one of the few role models for the young singer and activist. After a brush with prostate cancer left him facing his own mortality, Belafonte recalled visiting the great Robeson toward the end of his life. "When Paul Robeson was on his death bed," he said, "and I had occasion to talk to him, I asked him, 'After all you've been through and all that has gone on and all the cruelties that had been heaped upon you and all the good that you tried to do, do you think it was worth the journey?' And he said, 'Absolutely. Because it wasn't in the victories we sustained or the victories we lost. It was in fact in the journey itself because in that journey I met remarkable people. I came upon experiences I could never make up. The journey itself was so rewarding that it fills my soul.'"
Only one part of Harry Belafonte's journey concerns us here: his music. The movies, the stage appearances, the social activism, and his family are very much a part of his life and career, but for coverage of them, the reader will have to turn elsewhere.
Harry Belafonte's lineage is complex. His mother, Melvine Love, was born in Jamaica (probably on December 19, 1906). Melvine's mother was Scottish and her father was a black Jamaican. Belafonte's father, Harold George Belafonte, Sr., was born in the French colony of Martinique (probably on June 30, 1899) to a white French farmer and his Haitian wife. Belafonte, Sr. gave up French citizenship during the First World War to become a British subject and work as a cook in the Royal Navy. "On both sides of my family," Belafonte once remarked, "my aunts and uncles intermarried. If you could see my whole family congregated together, you would see every tonality of color, from the darkest black, like my Uncle Hyne, to the ruddiest white, like my Uncle Eric, a Scotsman." Harold George Belafonte, Jr. was born in Harlem, New York and the date is generally given as March 1, 1927, although some of the earliest magazine articles seem to imply that he might be a couple of years older. When he was eighteen months old, his parents moved to Jamaica, and returned to New York when Harry was three. It was the Depression, and times were hard. Then, when Harry was seven (some sources say nine), his mother sent him and his brother Dennis back to Jamaica to attend a British-style boarding school and live with relatives. Meanwhile, Harold, Sr. and Melvine separated.
Jamaica was prone to caste distinctions, with those of mixed descent considering themselves superior to those of predominantly African descent. Harry was considerably darker-skinned than his brother, and found himself in a curious never-never land, not quite dark enough or Jamaican enough, nor quite white enough. "Those class distinctions," he told 'The Saturday Evening Post'in 1957, "seemed a peculiar set of values. Then at thirteen I came back to New York, and ran smack into racial discrimination. This was not only violently painful, but something I could not reason out. It sort of shut me up inside myself." The good things about Jamaica left their imprint too, though. "I still have the impression of an environment that sang," Belafonte said later. "Nature sang and the people sang, too. The streets of Kingston constantly rang with the songs of piping pedlars or politicians drumming up votes in lilting singsong. I loved it."
Back in Harlem, Harry and his brother Dennis lived on 130th Street at Amsterdam Avenue in what was then a predominantly white and Spanish area. Dennis passed himself as Greek or Spanish, while Harry told people he was from Martinique. Then, in 1944, Harry left for Newport News, Virginia to attend storekeeper school with the idea of joining the Navy. The demand for manpower was high in the late years of the War. In Newport News, Belafonte met his first wife, Frances Margurite Byrd. She was studying at the Hampton Institute to become a child psychologist. Harry completed his storekeepers' course and shipped out to the west coast in December 1944, but didn't see active service, in fact didn't leave the American mainland.
By December 1945, Harry Belafonte was out of the Navy and working for his mother's new husband as a maintenance man's helper in Harlem. As 1945 closed, he saw his first play, 'Home Is the Hunter,' and began hanging around the American Negro Theatre, first as a helper and stagehand, then playing bit parts, and finally as a featured player. He appeared at downtown theatres, always stymied by the lack of good parts for blacks. One of the best roles came in May 1948, when he was booked to appear in 'Sojourner Truth,'based on the life of the black woman abolitionist, who helped organize the underground railroad, transporting slaves from the South to frigid freedom in the northern states and Canada. Belafonte played the heroine's son.
Margurite came to New York, and became Mrs. Belafonte on June 18, 1948, a month or so after 'Sojourner Truth' opened. She taught school while Belafonte struggled to find work. With a child on the way, he decided to take a steady job in the garment district, but just a few days before he was due to start, he walked into the Royal Roost and sang his way into a job. One of the Roost's managers, Monte Kay, had met Belafonte at the New School's Dramatic Workshop (where Belafonte was studying on the G. I. Bill alongside Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis). "I wrote a song for a play that someone else was meant to perform," Belafonte told Joe Smith. "Then, at the audition, they decided I should do it. Monte saw the play. He said, 'Why don't you put together three or four songs and come down to the Royal Roost?' I said, 'You got it.' Monte put me together with a jazz piano player, Al Haig. The songs we rehearsed were 'Pennies from Heaven,' 'Skylark,' and the song I did in school, 'Recognition.' A friend of mine, a Jewish guy I roomed with, Allan Greene, had written a song called 'Lean on Me.' Now comes the night for me to open. I walk on stage, thinking it's going to be me and Al Haig, and there's the band from the main set: Charlie Parker on saxophone, Max Roach on drums, and Miles Davis on trumpet, Tommy Potter on bass, and on piano, the only white dude in the band, Al Haig. It blew me away. I was nervous and anxious because I wasn't in their league." Talking earlier to 'The Saturday Evening Post,' Belafonte recalled the opening in a little more detail: "I was a young punk, standing up stiff as a board. I had to clear my throat about ninety times before I even knew what key I was in. Despite all my dramatic training, I couldn't figure out what to do with my hands, and my mouth was so dry that when I smiled I had to reach up and pull my upper lip loose."
It probably happened almost like that. The Roost was owned by Ralph Watkins, who also owned one of the premier jazz clubs on 52nd Street, Kelly's Stable. The Watkins family had brewery money behind them, and Ralph had been a musician during the Swing era before getting into the nightclub business. Monte Kay had worked at Kelly's and had launched a series of very successful Town Hall concerts before moving to the Roost. "Fifty-second Street [the home of modern jazz to that point] had developed a clip joint attitude that was rough on kids," Kay is quoted as saying in Arnold Shaw's The Street That Never Slept. "If you stayed more than fifteen minutes, they hustled you for another drink. I was convinced there was an audience for bop. One night I went to the Royal Roost, a chicken joint at Broadway and 47th, owned by Ralph Watkins. Jimmie Lunceford was playing, but the place was practically empty. Watkins was skeptical about the modern stuff, but I managed to talk him into letting me and dee-jay Symphony Sid produce a concert on an off-night. That night we instituted an admission policy. For 90 cents you could sit in the bleachers and listen to the show without buying a drink. It worked. We drew over five hundred admissions."
Many of the Royal Roost shows were broadcast. Even then, Parker was such an iconic figure that many of his performances have survived as home recordings. The line-up was much as Belafonte remembered it, with Kenny Dorham occasionally subbing for Miles Davis. Parker fans, of course, had no interest in Belafonte and didn't waste their precious tapes or wires or acetates on him. Parker was on peak form, and there was no hipper place to be than the Royal Roost circa 1949. "Billie Holiday got to be very friendly," remembered Belafonte. "Lester Young would always be sitting at the back of the club with his hat on and his horn on his lap. He'd say, 'Hey Bela, come sit here. Tell me about the world, man.'" It was probably January 1949 when Belafonte started at the Royal Roost, and his gig was extended to twenty-two weeks. He was paid two hundred dollars a week. "It looked big, but didn't do much for me and my family," Belafonte reflected sourly. "Between paying for managers and a press agent, I was in debt constantly."
Monte Kay became one of the partners in Roost Records (the other principals were Arthur and Bill Faden and Ralph Watkins). Belafonte was the label's first act. They recorded Allan Greene's Lean On Me and Belafonte's Recognition. The latter was an ambitious, overwrought piece, very much in the style of Strange Fruit, that tried to cram too much history and polemic into three minutes. Some of the vibrato-heavy low notes suggested that Belafonte had been listening to Billy Eckstine. "I sounded like Rin-Tin-Tin with a head cold," he concluded later.
Shortly after Roost Records was launched, bandleader Sammy Kaye acquired it, then sold it to his manager, Jack Hooke, and former Savoy Records A&R man Teddy Reig. They in turn later sold it to the notorious Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records, in August 1958. During the eight years it existed, Roost became one of the premier jazz labels, signing Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Lee Konitz, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Little Jimmy Scott. Harry Belafonte made just the one Roost record, though. Symphony Sid played it relentlessly, and, according to Monte Kay, it sold around ten thousand copies in New York. Almost inevitably, Belafonte was leaning toward jazz, but knew he didn't fit. Interviewed on KRHM, Los Angeles, in the Fifties, he said, "So powerful was the influence of the music they [Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, etc.] were playing that I felt driven to a certain experimentation in that field, but only a small segment of the public was ready for it. I became subservient, tonally and musically, to what those cats were playing, so there was little room for concentration on the lyrics or story. I had to think exclusively in terms of vocal gymnastics. It was a valuable experiment, but I knew it wasn't my style."
In June 1949, it wasannounced that Capitol Records...