Launched:- June 22, 2001
(No revisions have been made since.)

Collected here are personal reflections about Harry Belafonte penned prior
to the creation of the present website. The content of this page should now be
considered an archive as no further entries are planned. In effect, "Fan Forum"
has replaced "Rambles" as the place where such exchanges take place.

Noah 
Montreal, 30 April 1999
(First appeared on iMusic)

When I was in my early teens living back in Port Arthur it was the custom to surf the AM airwaves looking for interesting music and radio shows. Reception from distant stations appeared to be enhanced by the proximity of that vast body of water known as Lake Superior. On Sundays we would often stumble upon sermons being conducted in black churches to the south of the border. The spontaneous exchange that would take place on such occasions between preacher and congregation was absolutely captivating to me. A few years later, and much to my enjoyment, I discovered that Harry Belafonte had captured that same magic in his rendering of Noah.

It was always my hope to hear him interpret this number in a live setting but it appeared that this was not to be. Then finally in 1976, when he returned to the concert circuit after a long absence, we got our wish. With much anticipation, two of our daughters and I departed from Arvida, Quebec, on a six hour journey to the Place des Arts in Montreal. We attended the Sunday matinee performance and quickly settled in to be entertained by the greatest performer of all time. Mr. Belafonte was in fine form and when he launched into Noah we knew that we were in for a treat. However incredulous this may seem, the new reading surpassed even the album track.

Some might express disappointment that the tape recorders were not rolling so that all could later share in the good vibes that were generated. But possibly it is better that a few such special moments remain cherished in the memories of those who were in attendance. I know that over 20 years later we still marvel at the experience. It was most certainly more than worth the ride !

The Fox 
Montreal, 7 May 1999
(First appeared on iMusic)

Just another cute folk ditty before Harry Belafonte came along to work his magic. It had been part of the Burl Ives (renowned American balladeer) act for years, and was well known amongst followers of the idiom. Burlís rendition has an appeal all its own but the Belafonte transformation, with its distinctive Caribbean flavour, caught the fancy of music lovers everywhere. The master magician has again left his inimitable vocal signature on a track that has outlived the distractions of over four decades of pop music trends.

Make sure the track you are listening to has not been cropped. The horn intro, that sets the tone for the hunt which follows, is missing on some compilations.

The Sugar Hill Visitations
Montreal, 16 May 1999
(First appeared on iMusic)

It is common knowledge that Harry Belafonte was first an actor and then a jazz-pop recording artist, before his re-emergence as a folk singer in 1952. What may be a little obscure to some is the fact that he appeared as a regular on the TV series, "Sugarhill Times" in 1949. The following text is quoted from pages 992 & 993 of "The Complete Directory to Primetime National & Cable TV, 1946-Present, 6th Edition".

Sugar Hill Times
Musical Variety Show
First Telecast: September 13, 1949
Last Telecast: October 20, 1949
Broadcast History:
Sep. 1949, CBS, Tuesday. 8:00-9:00
Oct. 1949, CBS, Thursday. 8:30-9:00
Regulars: Willie Bryant / Harry Belafonte / Timmie Rogers / The Jubileers / Don Redman and His Orchestra

"Sugar Hill Times" was one of network television's first, short-lived attempts at showcasing black talent. All of the performers in the live weekly musical variety show were blacks. It aired 3 times as a full-hour show, and each time had a different title, premiering as "Uptown Jubilee", changing to "Harlem Jubilee", and finally settling on "Sugar Hill Times", the title it also used during the 2 half-hour telecasts on Oct. 6 & 20.

The Jubilee Sessions, The Phantom Tracks
Montreal, 20 June 1999
(First appeared on iMusic)

Harry Belafonte never entered a recording studio with "The Islanders" and it is unlikely that he ever met members of the band. Yet in 1960, following the resounding success of the Carnegie concerts, an LP on the Coronet label appeared in record stores across the US and Canada featuring 6 of his early recordings, together with 4 calypso numbers by "The Islanders".

But hold everything ! Let us scroll back to 1949 when Belafonte, the actor, first launched his recording career by laying down 2 sides for Roost. The 78 rpm jazz-pop release, which was the product of this session, was to cause quite a stir across the country, and especially in the New York City area where it received frequent air-play. But that's a story for another day. Now where was I ?

Oh yes, later that same year he stepped into the Capitol studios on two separate occasions to wax a total of 8 jazz-pop numbers. Some of these selections were issued as 78 rpm singles, while a few years later 4 found their way onto a 45 rpm EP release titled "Harry Belafonte, Close Your Eyes".

Then in 1950 he began to explore folk-based material and it was at this stage that 6 tracks, reflecting a range of musical styles, were generated for Jubilee. At the time a number of these songs were issued on 78. Following his signing with RCA in 1952, Jubilee brought together 4 of these same tracks on a 45 rpm EP titled "Harry Belafonte Sings Ballads" issued under 2 different covers. All 6 were later to be released on the LP in question and, over the years, 5 have reappeared on various Coronet and Celebrity compilations. In the process, Harry Belafonte has "shared the stage", so to speak, with "The Islanders" (a second album presents an altered program of Islander calypso music), Ray Charles, as well as the Bob Jones Singers.

   
       

Track Listings from those early Belafonte recording sessions :
Roost
(1949) : Lean On Me / Recognition
Capitol
(1949) : How Green Was My Valley / Deep As The River / They Didn't Believe Me / Close Your Eyes / Whispering / Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child / I Still Get A Thrill / Farewell To Arms
Jubilee
(1950) : Smoke Gets In Your Eyes / The Night Has A Thousand Eyes / Annabelle Lee / Venezuela / Simple, Simple, Simple / Only One Like Me

Unsolicited Advice
Montreal, 7 August 1999
(First appeared on iMusic)

So you can't find those elusive Belafonte tunes on CD. Are you prepared to forego the digital format in the interest of finally acquiring them ? If the answer is yes, then lace up those runners and make your merry way on down to the local used vinyl shops.

You say youíre not interested in an LP with excursion marks on one of 12 selections ? Trust me, buy it anyway and you'll be thankful you did. There may just be another opportunity to upgrade to near-mint. However in the worst case, you will most certainly come across another less-than-mint copy and the band in question will surely be free of ticks and blips.

Once you have exhausted this source of repertoire, fire up your trusty computer, and surf on over to eBay, the online auction house. Now sit back and witness Belafonte's entire body of work pass in front of your very own eyes within the space of only a few months. Go right ahead and jump into the bidding process. So what if you trample on the competition, guys like myself who would prefer to keep this site exclusive ?

Now you're armed with a whole pile of vinyl and the obvious question is, what's the next order of business ? Most of you are familiar with the 60 minute cassette, right ? And you don't have to be reminded that it is generally possible to load the programs from 2 long-playing records onto a single tape. Talk about convenient! Palm-sized, you can pop it in and out of a host of players, some even portable. Of course you already know exactly where I'm headed with this yarn but let me finish.

Now you proceed to transcribe all of that wonderful music onto cassettes. You can put together your own personal boxed set of Belafonte's greatest. Or you can reassemble the tracks while respecting the precise order in which they appeared on the original albums. It's a free world you know and you can re-record that material in whatever fashion you choose. Just refrain from mass production and supplying the black market. Only yesterday I read a piece about such a person and suffice it to say that he has changed vocations.

Whatís wrong with compact discs ? Well almost nothing, but are we going to stand back and wait for the day when maybe, just maybe, RCA (BMG/GE or whoever inherits the master tapes for those absolutely inspiring studio sessions) sees fit to re-issue the portfolio exactly the way it was first introduced to an adoring public ? I think not ! Let us not allow this latest technology to prevent us from enjoying a veritable treasure trove of great music just sitting there begging to be sampled.

May we once again gather here to share our thoughts on this passion of ours.

Footnote:
I cannot resist the urge to qualify this half-truth about CDs. The superb artwork and informative liner-notes (in readable script no less), that were once part and parcel of the 12 inch LP (50 years old last year), are sadly missing in the new format.

Update  2001:-
Itís a rapidly changing world out there and a fellow has to keep his options open. With the arrival of MP3 technology, and personal CD burners, it appears that a revised strategy may be in order.

The Great Poster Caper
Montreal, 29 August 1999
(First appeared on iMusic)

         

It was November 1960 and Toronto was abuzz with news of the imminent arrival of the Belafonte Roadshow. As luck would have it, I found myself walking down Bloor Street (Į poor and hungry, no shoes on my feet Į) when I stumbled upon the Promenade Record Shop. And low and behold, there in the window was a gigantic poster of the Master himself inviting us all down to join him at the O'Keefe Centre. What an awe-inspiring photograph and great graphics ! Needless to say, I just had to acquire that piece of history (announcing a musical milestone of unparalleled significance) and immediately set about to formulate a game-plan to realize said goal. I reasoned that there must be at least one Belafonte album that I did not already have in my collection (the only reason being that I was a struggling student of limited means). Sure enough this turned out to be the case. After rehearsing my lines, I approached the saleslady who had served me in the past. Of course she already knew that I was about the biggest Belafonte fan in North America, and just possibly the world over, so it did not take a lot of pleading to convince her that this keepsake should rightfully go to the highest end user, yours truly of course. The deal was contingent upon purchasing that missing LP and a couple of weeks later I proudly took possession of my prize.

But then there was the concert itself, my very first following six years as a practicing devotee of Belafontedom. It meant skipping classes and standing in line for over 5 hours but what a glorious experience. Every so often, when the mood is just right and the stars align, I venture up into the attic to dust off that old poster and reflect upon those cherished memories. Deliver me !

Discovering iMusic
Postcard  from Sumatra, Spring 2000

Judy, I must say that Harry Belafonte's music has brought immense joy into my life. Mine has been a solitary but unwavering devotion to the artist, his works, and all that he represents. Of course my close friends were constantly reminded of my passion and word spread. Some clipped magazine articles for me while others alerted me to upcoming TV appearances. In my travels I encountered many casual Belafonte fans but none who shared my boundless admiration for the man and his music. This all changed just about one year ago when finally I got interested in the computer and found my way onto the Internet. First came the exciting revelation that there were message boards dedicated to individual artists. Here queries or reflections could be posted for all similarly-oriented parties to see. What a brilliant concept! I quickly set about to create a stir and soon concluded that by posting as anonymous, one could operate under different personas thereby leaving the impression that a number of distinct personalities were at work. Sure enough this seemed to stimulate an involvement on the part of some serious players who had previously remained silent.

Penny Purchases
Postcard  from Sumatra, Spring 2000

Jan, those captivating reflections on your initial encounters with Calypso music brought back a flood of memories of my own. Like yourself, I was hampered by limited resources and acquired my very first Belafonte singles by saving up pennies left over from my high school lunch money. Surprisingly, just about every month I would find myself in a position to add another disc to my collection at the incredible cost, believe it or not, of  90 cents. I am sure you can appreciate the sense of anticipation and excitement that accompanied each and every trek to the record counter at our local Eatonís department store.

Favourites
Postcard from Sumatra, Spring 2000

And then  thereís the music itself and how uplifting and inspiring it can be! Did I hear someone ask about favourites? Neither time nor space would permit me to delve into that topic here. But I am driven by my present mood and circumstances to draw from Mr. Belafonteís blockbuster of an LP, titled "Swing Dat Hammer." It was released in 1959 to rave reviews, most notably overseas. All 10 tracks are gems so it is a difficult proposition to zero in on 2 or 3 that deserve special mention, but here goes.
Diamond Joe -
Suffice it to say that no collection of superlatives can adequately describe the impact of this spell-binding interpretation.
Look Over Yonder -
Not the only version of this number that Belafonte has committed to vinyl but by far the most moving. Some of his best efforts have been in this idiom of chants, shouts and hollers (whether they be of American, African, or West Indian origin).
Talkin' And Signifyin' -
With a mood-setting backdrop ably provided by the Belafonte Singers,  Mr. B. the actor, places himself behind bars where he exchanges quips with his cell-mates who are all, needless to say, longing for their freedom. Simply extraordinary!

Beyond The Show-Stoppers
Postcard  from Sumatra, Spring 2000

   

Harry Belafonte is closely identified with a number of up-tempo pieces that understandably never fail to bring down the house wherever he appears. It is just unfortunate that music lovers tend to be less familiar with the other end of his musical spectrum. For instance how many listeners associate him with tender ballads such as Scarlet Ribbons, Shenandoah, or Turn Around, where the voice is often simply carried on the strains of an acoustic guitar. What artist today would leave himself so exposed.

Transformation, Jazz to Folk
Postcard  from Sumatra, Spring 2000

           

My good friend Ron has been a dedicated jazz fan for some 50 odd years and in the process has closely followed the careers of countless artists. When he first learned of my intense admiration for Harry Belafonte he took great delight in relating the most intriguing personal experience dating from the early fifties (1953?). At the time Ron knew Belafonte as a rising jazz performer who had recorded for both Roost and Capitol Records and was being touted as the next Billy Eckstine. So when word got out that Harry would be putting in an appearance at the Seville Theatre in downtown Montreal he made it a point to take in the show. Much to Ronís amazement he was greeted by a transformed Belafonte who delivered an unfamiliar repertoire of folk songs including some Caribbean material. He recalled that during one Calypso number, either Hold 'em Joe or Matilda, Harry Belafonte playfully draped himself in the stage curtains to underscore a particularly poignant passage. Ron was most impressed with the total make-over of the artist and thoroughly enjoyed the show.

In later years Harry would return to Montreal on a regular basis to play in a more prestigious venue, La Place des Arts, but what a thrill it must have been to catch the young entertainer in such an intimate setting, and just as his career was about to flourish. The Seville disappeared from the landscape years ago but it will be forever remembered as the stage where Belafonte introduced his new act to Montrealers.

Flash-Back, Circa 1954, The Singles Dilemma
(45 vs. 78 rpm)
Montreal, January 2001

Why change ? After all the 10 inch shellac platter, although prone to high surface noise and shattering if mishandled, has been around since the dawn of recorded music. Besides with the arrival of high fidelity sound we are being told that the greater the speed the better the sound reproduction. Then what possible arguments could remain to support the switch from 10 inch single-play discs rotating at 78 rpm to 7 inch discs turning at 45 rpm ? We are prepared to acknowledge that the smaller format is well suited to the juke box trade where the concept is to cram as many tunes as possible into a single machine. However none of us are enamored with the prospect of being forced into submission by the big record producers when it comes to our personal listening habits.

Update 2001 :-
Back then we did not believe the new soft plastic (vinyl) discs with their super-fine grooves would stand up well to stylus wear over time. How wrong we were ! Cue up an old 45 from that era, give it a spin and you will be amazed at how well it has fared.

The RCA Vaults
Montreal, February 2001

Imagine ! What if we were to be granted unrestricted access to the RCA vaults and Belafonte's tracks representing 25 prolific years of regular recording. You need not be reminded that he was (and still is, for that matter) the consummate perfectionist, and forever in pursuit of new musical directions. According to all reports each session yielded a large number of alternate takes and out-takes. Amongst these we would most certainly uncover interpretations that differ greatly from those we know, and some with unique and endearing qualities all their own. The challenge would be to search for such gems, these being by-products of the process of evolution that took place over the life of these projects.

They say he entered the studio on three separate occasions to work and re-work Eden Was Just Like This before finally crafting an arrangement he was prepared to commit to vinyl. But what about the other takes ?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if Mr. Belafonte's people were to revisit these archives with a mandate to assemble a collection of alternate takes for inclusion in an album. It might even incorporate some session banter reflecting the mood that prevailed during those sets. Of course this will most probably never happen but isn't it nice to contemplate such a possibility. Just imagine !

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