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Listen to Harry Belafonte:
If you felt too old to tolerate rock and roll, but still wanted to be modern enough to appreciate new sounds, ethnic music provided a viable option. Middle-class couples bought Harry Belafonte records by the millions to play for their neighbors on their new hi-fi record players, which they proudly displayed in living rooms and finished basements across the country. The sophistication shown by appreciating Harry Belafonte was impressive, considering the narrow tolerance of the time, but Belafonte’s vocal talents and exoticism were not the only reasons for his popularity. His striking good looks and smooth sensuality added to his appeal, particularly with women.
Before he was established as a successful actor, starring in the film Carmen Jones, Belafonte began his music career singing folk songs in the night clubs of New York's Greenwich Village. His native West Indian background brought him, naturally enough, in contact with indigenous folk songs, and RCA Records, upon signing him, intended to present Belafonte as a bonafide calypso artist. An album of Caribbean-based material, called Calypso, was released in 1956 and was wildly successful, holding the #1 position for a whopping thirty-one weeks. The companion singles released from the album were the brooding "Jamaica Farewell" and the startlingly original "Banana Boat (Day-o)".
A folk band called the Tarriers, featuring future actor Alan Arkin, was presumably inspired by the album "Calypso" and released its version of “Banana Boat” just weeks before Belafonte's own version charted. Both recordings reached the top 10. Later, another four versions (by Stan Freberg, The Fontane Sisters, Steve Lawrence and Sarah Vaughan) reached the Top 40, providing a clear indication of just how influential Harry Belafonte had become. On his own version, Belafonte made full use of his thespian skills as well as his singing talent, thus capitalizing on his exotic accent to make the song sound authentic. He made “Banana Boat” his own, and throughout the years his version has been occasionally resurrected, most memorably when it was used for a show-stopping scene in the movie Beetlejuice.
Belafonte's career continues, with sporadic television and concert appearances. He has been and remains an active supporter of civil rights, and performed at the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King told the world, "I have a dream." "We Are The World", recorded for African famine relief, was Belafonte’s brainchild.