Calypso singer and human rights activist Harry Belafonte died earlier this afternoon at his New York home of congestive heart failure. He was 96.
Belafonte was among the first recording artists to break the race barrier in American radio stations with his first album, Calypso, recorded in 1955. It became the first record album to sell over 1 million copies, and yielded hits such as Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), Jamaica Farewell and Man Smart, Woman Smarter. Calypso stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for almost 2 years.
In Canada, due to the activism of former Member of Parliament for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Jean Augustine, we celebrate Black History Month during the month of February, and I thought it would be worthwhile to show some landmark musical contributions by black people that have caught my attention.
The history of black people contributing to music has been well-documented, and in the 1950’s, it was acknowledged to be a “race barrier” for black people to break into the music charts. What was at the time called “race music” — the music of people like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, was music often panned by radio stations, while cover versions of the same songs by the likes of Elvis Presley and Pat Boone were played endlessly.
Harry Belafonte was among the first to break the race barrier in 1955 with his album Calypso. The second album by him to reach #1 on Billboard, it contains signature tunes such as Day-o, Jamaica Farewell, and Man Smart, Woman Smarter.
Belafonte is still around, he is 92 years old. Before his ilve performances of Day-o, he would explain a particular lyric in it, which was “Come Mr. Tally Man, tally me banana”. The song was about dock workers loading heavy bunches of bananas on to a boat for export over night, waiting as dawn breaks for the tally man to count their bunches of bananas so they can get paid and go home.
What makes this particular LP special is that it was the first record album in history to sell over a million records. Before that, million sellers were a term attributed to singles, such as Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, or Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons. But this was the first time a whole album was acknowledged as a million seller. Calypso also stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for 99 weeks — almost two years.
Belafonte was very much involved with the political activism of Rev. Martin Luther King, and as a result was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He paid for Reverend King’s bail to get him out of Birmingham Prison in Alabama, and raised bail money to get other unjustly imprisoned black people out of prison on the eve of the Birmingham protests. The protests were against Apartheid-style racial segregation, common in the southern states until the early 1960s, and Birmingham was seen as the focal point of segregation during that time. The person who started this was a local seamstress who boarded a municipal bus in Birmingham, dutifully sitting in the section reserved for “coloured” people. When the white-only section of the bus became full, she refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger who was standing, as required by municipal and state segregation laws, and as requested by the bus driver. The passenger, Rosa Parks, was also a leader in the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and the conviction was fought all the way to the Supreme Court, with the conviction and the segregation laws surrounding it being overturned.
While Parkes was fired from her department store job as a seamstress, and received death threats for many years onward, she won world renown, as well as having streets named after her, winning medals of honor, honorary doctorates from several universities as far away as Tokyo, and a county in Washington state dedicated the front-row seats of their municipal buses in her name, shortly after her death in 2005.