Saturday 24 February 2018

Review: Memoir: My Song by Harry Belafonte with Michael Shnayerson

Canongate, £14,99, pbk, 470 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Romance afoot: Harry Belafonte
and Dorothy Dandridge in the
1954 movie Carmen Jones
Romance afoot: Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 movie Carmen Jones

Few who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s are unable to sing a chorus of Island in the Sun, Scarlet Ribbons or Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), all hits for Harry Belafonte, the "King of Calypso" and the first person to sell a million records. His coffee-coloured good looks and honey-toned voice made him a star on stage, screen and vinyl.

Born in New York into poverty two years before the Great Crash, to a Jamaican mother with "a genius for survival" (she was a housekeeper) and a ne'er-do-well Martiniquan father (he was a chef but not around much), Harry was sent back to Jamaica to live with his grandmother when he was five, staying until he was 13.

Back in New York he went to high school and then joined the navy, serving in World War Two. After the war he was working as a janitor in New York and singing the Calypso music he had learned in Jamaica in Greenwich Village clubs.

A theatre ticket given to him as a tip changed his life. He describes the experience of seeing people on stage as an epiphany.

He took a drama course at the famous New School, where his fellow students included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. "None of us looked like we would make it," he says.

They were broke all the time. Belafonte worked as a garbage collector to make ends meet.

Poitier got his first break when Belafonte had to return to his job on the night that talent scouts visited the theatre. Poitier, who was Belafonte's understudy in the play they were doing, stepped in.

"Whenever I want to keep him humble, I remind him that his entire career was based on garbage," Belafonte says.

His recording career soon took off and his 1956 album, Calypso, outsold the two albums Elvis Presley released that year.

Carmen Jones (1954), Otto Preminger's Hollywood reworking of Bizet's opera, made him a film star and soon he was earning big bucks in Vegas -- while suffering the indignities meted out to all blacks.

Belafonte's disillusion with how "people of colour" were treated on their return from World War Two had radicalised him and led to his involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

Unlike other black artists, he wasn't prepared to compromise. Long before they first met in 1946, Belafonte's mentor was Paul Robeson, the singer, actor and activist whose career was broken by Senator Joe McCarthy.

So when he answered his phone in spring 1956 to hear the "courtly southern voice" of Martin Luther King requesting a meeting at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, he had little hesitation in agreeing.

Dr King had made headlines with the Montgomery bus boycott. Belafonte was admiring yet sceptical: other black preachers had abandoned Robeson et al in their hour of need.

But King was "the real deal, a leader both inspired and daunted by the burden he'd taken on". So began a friendship which involved the singer giving time, energy and money to the cause.

In August 1964, the terrifying "freedom summer" portrayed in Mississippi Burning, he flew to Mississippi with $70,000 in a briefcase to support students working on voter registration. Klansmen greeted his arrival.

Belafonte delivered singers and actors to the 1963 March on Washington, and to Selma and Montgomery -- flashpoints of the civil rights struggle -- and Belafonte paid for the King family's housekeeper.

Courted by both John and Robert Kennedy before and after the 1960 election, he was the go-between in their often cynical dealings with King.

Belafonte, a keen gambler, played his hand skilfully.

His Upper West Side apartment was both a refuge for King and a base where he could brainstorm. Belafonte and his wife joined Coretta Scott King at the open casket ahead of King's lying in state: the mortician's putty was all-too-visible in the head wound, and Mrs B "took out her powder puff, and dabbed gently at the discoloration until she got the tone just right".

This is an extraordinary story of a brave man. He also put Nana Mouskouri and Miriam Makeba in front of American audiences, gave a young Bob Dylan his first studio session, and even dreamed up the idea for 'We are the World'.

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