One type of music that’s always been enormously appealing to me – and to many others too – is Calypso, and there’s not much doubt about the specific tune that first introduced me to the sound. I’m betting that it was your first exposure to Calypso too — Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”.
Belafonte’s life and career is a fascinating story, one that began 80 years ago with his birth in the Harlem section of New York City. His parents were Jamaican immigrants, and during his childhood he moved back to Jamaica with his mother, later returning to New York as a teen. After a few years, he dropped out of school and joined the Navy, and once discharged, decided to try acting.
The post-war years were an exciting time for many hopeful actors, and as young Harry studied acting he found himself meeting future stars such as Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis. Harry’s stunning good looks and acting ability soon got him noticed, but it was another facet of his talent that eventually made the difference for him. Harry could sing.
He began by singing in clubs and was such a success that he even opened his own small place after a while, and then branched out into records. He originally specialized in pop music, but eventually discovered folk music in general and West Indian music in particular, and it fit him like a custom-made suit.
At the same time his acting career continued to progress, and he hit the big time when his singing talent helped him land a co-starring role with Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger’s film from the Broadway show. It was a modernized African-American version of Bizet’s original opera and was a big success, with a number of nominations and awards.
Although Harry continued to act, his next triumph was as a singer. His first album was a modest success, but when his next album, Belafonte, was produced it became a wildfire best-seller that reached the top (and stayed for 31 weeks), creating a nation-wide affection for Calypso music. Tunes from the album, including “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jamaica Farewell”, became favorites for many listeners and gave Harry his signature name — King of Calypso.
In the years following, Harry Belafonte has become one of the most respected of public figures. He’s continued to perform and innovate musically, with many concerts and best-selling recordings, and is still one of America’s most respected actors. In addition, he’s had successes as a producer and has been the force behind many projects.
His credentials as a humanitarian define him in today’s world. Although some might not agree with all of his views, few would dispute his dedication to meaningful causes. He’s been instrumental in working with UNICEF, the USA For Africa effort, and countless other worthy organizations.
He’ll always be the King of Calypso but he’s also a renaissance man.
Harry Belafonte – “Jamaica Farewell”