Belafonte: Beyond the Banana Boat

In 1950, Merv Griffin had a hit with a novelty song called “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”. Then he went on to accomplish a lot of different other things, and on the whole he is remembered for his broader career, and few remember that one hit song. In 1956, Harry Belafonte (b. 1927) released his own hit song about a tropical fruit, then went on to accomplish a mountain of important things and…somehow only seems to be remembered by all and sundry for that one goddamn song. Now, I’m not someone who considers culture to be “trivia”. It’s lazy and facile to reduce artists to quiz show questions and so, when justice demands it, I consider it my duty to de-emphasize the distorting tips of icebergs. So I’ll mention that “Day-O” song, but only in its proper context, which is a single moment in a 70 year career.

Belafonte’s public image as a Calypso singer is misleading. He spent only eight years of his childhood, from the ages of five to thirteen, on the island of Jamaica. He was born in Harlem, then returned there as a teenager. Both of Belafonte’s parents were Jamaican born. Two of his grandparents were black, one was of Scottish descent, one was a Dutch Sephardic Jew. As a young man Belafonte attended productions of the Negro Ensemble Theater with his friend Sidney Poitier, and so this is the main aspect of Belafonte we want to get across. The foundation of Belafonte’s life and career was acting and the theatre. I think it has largely been assumed that he was a kind of native folk musician whose chart success then got him cast in movies, as had happened with Elvis, Pat Boone, and others. But it was the other way around. He was an actor first, and his musical persona was largely a role.

While studying theatre arts with Edwin Piscator at the New School, Belafonte began singing in Greenwich Village jazz clubs, with the likes of Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Miles Davis. As early as 1949 he was a regular on the CBS tv variety show Uptown Jubilee a.k.a. Harlem Jubilee a.k.a Sugar Hill Times, with Willie Bryant, Timmie Rogers, Maxine Sullivan, and the Don Redman Orchestra.

1953 was Belafonte’s breakthrough year: he appeared opposite Dorothy Dandridge in the movie Bright Road, had his first hit single “”Gomen Nasai (Forgive Me)”, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and starred on Broadway in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, a show that played well into the following year and earned him a Tony, resulting in his first album Mark Twain and Other Favorites (1954). In 1954 he reunited with Dandridge for Otto Preminger’s screen adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones. In 1955 he returned to Broadway in the revue 3 for Tonight with Marge and Gower Champion.

1956 proved the crucial year in terms of his success in popular music. He released the LPs Belafonte and Calypso and had the hit singles “Jamaica Farewell”, “Mary’s Boy Child” and, yes, “The Banana Boat Song“, starting something of a national craze for island music. As the folk movement took off, Belafonte recorded other forms (blues, ballad, etc) as well, and his albums were massively popular over the next couple of decades. I close my eyes and see them in the record collections of my friends parents, well worn from play at parties.

There were three more movies during Belafonte’s peak period: Island in the Sun (1957), again with Dandridge, as well as James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie, and Stephen Boyd; The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959) with Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer; and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), directed by Robert Wise.

Naturally chart and movies success led to appearances on TV variety shows as well. In addition to ten spots on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was on the Colgate Comedy Hour, The Nat King Cole Show, The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, Kraft Music Hall, and The Danny Kaye Show. He also hosted his own specials, like Tonight with Belafonte (1959). Belafonte was also one of the man who performed at President Kennedy’s famous birthday party in 1962. He continued performing in night clubs throughout the country and hosted one of the famous vaudeville revival bills at the Palace Theatre in New York in 1959.

In early 1968 Belafonte guest hosted on The Tonight Show, subbing for Johnny Carson. Among his guests were Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, both just months away from being assassinated. Belafonte had been involved in the Civil Rights movement since the 1950s, and considered Paul Robeson his mentor. More often than not he was on the side of justice, though like his mentor, he tended to be too starry eyed when it came to dictatorships of the left. (A 2001 documentary about Fidel Castro he appeared in truly stoked my ire. There’s a happy medium, people! Castro was a murderer — take the fairy dust out of your eyes!)

After a decade away from films, Belafonte returned in 1970 to appear in the socially conscious picture The Angel Levine with Zero Mostel. He teamed up with his old friend Sidney Poitier for Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). He went against type as a scary gangster in the latter, and played a similar (though much more seriously portrayed (character in Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996), following up on cameos he had made for that director in The Player (1992) and Prêt-à-Porter (1994). (I’ll go out on a limb and guess that Tim Robbins brought him into the Altman fold. Not only is Robbins a long-time left wing activist, but his parents were in the Village folk scene at the same time as Belafonte. I can’t imagine they didn’t know each other). Some of Belafonte’s other movies include White Man’s Burden (1995), Bobby (2006), and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018).

In 2022, Belafonte was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which sounds a little strange for this majorly “unplugged” performer, but it makes more sense when you learn that it was in the “Early Influence” category, and Belafonte is widely admired by many hip hop artists for his activism.

For more on variety entertainment, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.  And please keep an eye out for Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Varietycoming out from Bear Manor Media this November!