The great, late musician Harry Belafonte is being remembered as a civil rights leader, movie actor and a best friend of the late great actor Sidney Poitier—all true. He is also acknowledged as serving as an avatar of Caribbean culture with such hits as “Day O,” (The Banana Boat Song) “Island in the Sun,” and “Jamaica Farewell”—also true.
But few reporters have reached back into the breadth of his 1950s recordings for RCA Victor (“RCA Victory” as one young reporter termed it) which were shocking at the time for their audacity, sexuality and versatility. Belafonte was not only one of the first black singers to exude sexuality—with his good looks and his notorious shirts cut down to the navel—but also one of the first to sing about it! Consider the lyrics from his tune, “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” which suggest a sexual freedom not often admitted in the 1950s (and even cut in some versions.)
I was treatin’ a girl independently
She was makin’ baby for me
When de baby born and I went to see
Eyes was blue
It was not by me.
And how about the song “Tongue Tie Baby” in which Belafonte promises marriage to a woman just to consummate a passionate encounter. [The mission failed]
How to make the fruit fall off the tree
If I want a chance to integrate me situation
I got to talk some other talk for she
Right away marriage talk was coming out me mouth
She smiled the conquest is no long in doubt
But before she reach insanity,
With the last chance whisper she telling me
And speaking of marriage, early Belafonte songs did not have very progressive views. In the song Angelique-O, he sings that “Mama’s got to take you back,” because Angelique-O was a poor housekeeper. ( “You never learned how to make a stew/your biscuits Lord I can hardly chew.”)
In the song, Cordelia Brown, Belafonte confesses that he’s “yearned this long for your [Cordelia’s] caress” but since her “head’s so red” [not in keeping with local beauty standards], “I think I will marry Maybelle instead.” Ouch.
And what are we to make of the arguably racist song, “Brown Skin Girl,” who is told in the song to “stay home and mind baby?”
Versatility in Song Choices and Voice
In his early recordings, Belafonte’s voice was amazingly versatile. While it gallops with light-hearted tunes like “Scratch” and “Monkey” (“My girl came over to have a drink/I came downstairs and what do you think?/The monkey had run and he let her in/
He poured her a glass of me favorite gin,”) it is reverential on tunes like “Love, Love Alone,” about the English monarch King Edward’s throne abdication and the Hebrew dance hit “Hava Nagila.” (What influenced his choice of material one wonders?)
Belafonte’s musical soloists on early recordings on woodwinds and horns and his backup singers were remarkable and culturally true but mostly took a backseat to their famous lead singer. (Nor did Belafonte’s fun and satirical Calypso songs, occlude his apparently strong faith showcased on an entire album of spirituals and his Christmas-timed “Mary’s Boy Child,” which is still a treasured holiday favorite.)
Many enjoyed Belafonte’s entertaining movie appearances and appreciated his civil rights work. But Belafonte’s early musical work was unprecedented in creativity and audacity and should not be forgotten.