Filmmaker Susanne Rostock tells the rich life story of this remarkable artist and humanitarian in the intimate feature-length documentary Sing Your Song, which premiered this past Monday on HBO. Distilled from more than 700 hours of interviews, eyewitness accounts, movie clips, excerpts from FBI files, and news and rare archival film footage and stills, some of which has never been seen before, Sing Your Song reveals Belafonte as a tenacious hands-on activist who worked intimately with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mobilized celebrities for social justice, participated in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and took action to counter gang violence, prisons and the incarceration of youth.
Born into a rough Harlem neighborhood in 1927, Belafonte’s immigrant mother sent him to be raised in her native Jamaica in an effort to ensure his safety; there he developed a cultural reservoir on which to build future artistic success. Upon the outbreak of World War II, he returned to Harlem, and later enlisted in the United States Navy, serving for almost two years as a munitions loader. Returning to New York City, Belafonte worked in the garment center and as a janitor’s assistant. As gratuity for one apartment repair job, Belafonte was given a ticket to a production of “Home Is the Hunter” at the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in Harlem, which sparked a desire for a life in the performing arts.
RCA Victor signed the young talent in 1952, but his career on the stage wasn’t over yet, and he picked up both Tony and Theatre World Awards for his performance in 1953’s John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. Just a few short months before Almanac opened on Broadway, Belafonte’s “Matilda” (heard on Sing Your Song) caught the public’s fancy, becoming a staple in concert. 1956’s Calypso introduced many Americans to the genre, and became the first LP ever to surpass the one-million sales mark. It introduced two more smash signature songs for Belafonte, “Jump in the Line” and, of course, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” Both are included on the new compilation.
While primarily known for Calypso, Belafonte has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards. His second–most popular hit, which came immediately after "The Banana Boat Song," was the novelty tune "Mama Look at Bubu," also known as "Mama Look a Boo–Boo" (originally recorded by Lord Melody in 1956), in which he sings humorously about misbehaving and disrespectful children. It reached number eleven on the pop chart.
In 1959 he starred in Tonight With Belafonte, a nationally televised special that featured Odetta, who sang Water Boy and who performed a duet with Belafonte of There's a Hole in My Bucket that hit the national charts in 1961. Belafonte continued to record for RCA through the 1950s to the 1970s. Two live albums, both recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1959 and 1960, enjoyed critical and commercial success. From his 1959 album, Hava Nagila became part of his regular routine and one of his signature songs. He was one of many entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the inaugural gala of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. That same year he released his second calypso album, Jump Up Calypso, which went on to become another million seller. During the 1960s he introduced several artists to American audiences, most notably South African singer Miriam Makeba and Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. His album Midnight Special (1962) featured the first–ever record appearance by a then young harmonica player named Bob Dylan.
As The Beatles and other stars from Britain began to dominate the U.S. pop charts, Belafonte's commercial success diminished; 1964's Belafonte at The Greek Theatre was his last album to appear in Billboard's Top 40. His last hit single, A Strange Song, was released in 1967 and peaked at number 5 on the Adult contemporary music charts. Belafonte has received Grammy Awards for the albums Swing Dat Hammer (1960) and An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965). The latter album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under Apartheid. He earned six Gold Records.
Belafonte received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994 and he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. He performed sell–out concerts globally through the 1950s to the 2000s. Due to illness he was forced to cancel a reunion tour with Nana Mouskouri planned for the spring and summer of 2003 following a tour in Europe. His last concert was a benefit concert for the Atlanta Opera on October 25, 2003. In a 2007 interview he stated that he had since retired from performing.
Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song: The Music
1. Mark Twain
3. Mama Look a Boo Boo
4. Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)
5. Cocoanut Woman
6. Banana Boat Song (Day-O)
7. Island in the Sun
8. Jump Down, Spin Around
9. Man Smart (Woman Smarter)
10. Jamaica Farewell
12. My Angel (Malaika) – feat. Miriam Makeba
13. Jump in the Line
14. A Hole in the Bucket (Live) – feat. Odetta
15. Turn the World Around
16. Can’t Cross Over (River Come Down)