In my new series, The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1956: Harry Belafonte’s Calypso
It’s 1956, rock and roll is taking America by storm with artists like Elvis Presley leading this seismic change in popular music landing hit after hit. All of this is happening as the American South is still steeped in Jim Crow segregation with a civil rights movement growing to dismantle it with the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurring that year. And through all this, the best selling album of 1956 was an album consisting of Caribbean folk songs from a well-established singer, actor, and activist who managed to cross racial boundaries to achieve the first album to sell over one million copies and launch a nationwide craze in the process.
Born to Jamaican immigrants in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, Belafonte grew up with his mother often under poverty. During his childhood, Belafonte lived with his grandmother in Jamaica getting to explore the culture of his family’s home country that would influence him later on. He then returned to Harlem where he went to high school for a semester before dropping out to join the Navy in World War II at 17. After the war, he got a job in New York as a janitor’s assistant when a tenant gave him tickets to see performances at the American Negro Theater where he immediately developed a love of acting. He wound up performing with the theater while studying acting at New York’s Dramatic Workshop of The New School with classmates including legendary actors Marlon Brando and Bea Arthur.
To help pay for his acting classes, Belafonte began singing in local jazz clubs with jazz legends Charlie Parker and Miles Davis playing in his band despite not having proper voice training. It was his performances that lead to a record deal in 1949. Initially, he was singing the jazz-influenced popular music of the day but soon began discovering folk music through archives at the Library of Congress as well as discovering the music of his Jamaican homeland which led him to perform more folk music in his performances.
While his singing career was growing, so was his acting. He won a Tony for his role in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac on Broadway and starred in several major motion pictures with the biggest role being 1953’s Carmen Jones. Through this, Belafonte became a national and worldwide celebrity with his albums landing big success on the charts thanks to his signing to major label RCA Records. His first album, 1954’s Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites peaked on Billboard’s album chart at #3 while his second album 1956’s Belafonte reached #1. But that was the appetizer for what was to come.
Upon its release in May 1956, Calypso reached #1 on the albums chart and stayed there for 31 weeks, a then-unprecedented feat, knocking Elvis Presley’s debut album from the top spot becoming the first album to sell over a million copies. It was a surprise to RCA Records who at first doubted that an album of traditional Caribbean folk and calypso songs could sell at all in America. The success of Calypso not only grew Belafonte’s growing fame but culturally it caused calypso to become a nationwide trend. Many big stars of the day began to incorporate calypso into their music which was especially evident in folk music. A notable example of this was the folk trio The Kingston Trio, who’s name they picked because of its reference to the Jamaican capital which in turn reflected the calypso music they were inspired by.
Looking back, it’s amazing to think music like this was able to be as big of a seller as it was. It’s not just the fact that it came out in an era where rock and roll was ascendant or where Jim Crow segregation was still being practiced but just in terms of larger American trends. Americans tend to have a strange relationship when it comes to Caribbean music such as calypso and reggae. Despite its popularity as sunny, tropical music, these genres don’t tend to have much play and success on the American pop charts. Even Bob Marley, the most well-known reggae artist in the history of the world, only notched one low charting single in America during the ‘70s while his only #1 song on the Hot 100 is Eric Clapton’s weak-ass watered down 1974 cover of “I Shot The Sheriff.” Most of Marley’s success in America has come after his 1981 death and his posthumous greatest-hits album Legend. A lot of the Caribbean inflected hits in America tend to be like Clapton’s hit: lite, watered-down versions that are hard to qualify as Caribbean. This is what makes the success of Calypso weird for me to think about.
And yet, Calypso remains a very well done piece of Caribbean music. Whereas Belafonte’s previous albums were largely the American folk that was popping up in New York in the ‘50s, Calypso is the work of a man using his fame to bring his culture to a larger audience and succeeding. Much of the album’s legacy is thanks to its opening track “Banana Boat (Day-O)” a traditional Jamaican folk song about the banana trade workers who work all night and once daylight comes they want to go home and be with their families. It’s probably the most famous calypso song known to most Americans and it has stuck around a lot in popular culture over the years with its appearances in movies like Beetlejuice and in 2011 was sampled by two major acts: Jason Derulo who interpolated the song for the chorus of “Don’t Wanna Go Home” and Lil Wayne who sampled its chant for “6 Foot 7 Foot.”
In discussing the importance of “Banana Boat (Day-O)” Belafonte stated, “The most important thing to me about ‘The Banana Boat Song’ is that before America heard it, Americans had no notion of the rich culture of the Caribbean. Very few of them did, anyway, which made no sense to me. It made no sense to me back then that people in America would not respond to the Caribbean culture I knew in joyous, positive ways. But there were these cultural assumptions then about people from the Caribbean – that they were all rum drinking, sex-crazed and lazy – not they were tillers of the land, harvesters of bananas for landlords of the plantations. I thought, let me sing about a new definition of these people. Let me sing a classic work song, about a man who works all night for a sum equal to the cost of a dram of beer, a man who works all night because it’s cooler then than during the day.”
Beyond “Banana Boat (Day-O),” Calypso offers itself a good listen throughout. Listening to Calypso today, you can definitely hear the commitment Belafonte talks about in exposing Americans to the rich Caribbean culture that hadn’t gotten much cultural exposure previously. Belafonte singing throughout the album conveys a lot of emotions from joyous on the upbeat tracks such as “I Do Adore Her” and “Will His Love Be Like His Rum” to tender on the slower spacey songs such as “Jamaican Farewell” and “Come Back Liza.”
For the album, Belafonte recorded it with his friend, clarinetist Tony Scott and his orchestra alongside other session musicians and a chorus led by the actor/singer Brock Peters. All of these players and singers get lots of moments to show off on this album. They all help add to the cultural theme of the album with elements like the bongos, beautiful classical guitar, whistling, and the chants the backup singers do throughout. It adds a lot of cultural flavor to the album. Granted, the music on Calypso doesn’t resonate with me a whole lot and never knew much about it until doing this review so I can’t say it’s an album I would actively seek out or listen to all the time. Nevertheless, Calypso is still a well-made album.
Ultimately, I think the massive success Calypso had in 1956 is the classic case of an artist in an imperial phase. They’re at the height of their fame and use their power to wield ideas into their music that will only succeed because of the name attached to it. Artists can do pretty much anything in their music and the public will eat it up. Belafonte had already become well known for his singing and movie performances by the time of Calypso so the album was already put into a position to succeed even with its unusual musical style for the time. Another factor for its success might be that Calypso provided record buyers especially those opposed to the growing rock and roll revolution an album that could be enjoyed by everyone no matter their age. Calypso got as big as it did because people liked listening to it and listening to Harry Belafonte.
The success of Calypso helped to cement Belafonte as a mainstream-beloved black entertainer during a time when there weren’t many mainstream-beloved black entertainers. Through the rest of the ‘50s and into the ‘60s, he continued performing and releasing albums both studio and live ones that continued his chart success and even got a couple of Grammy nominations for Album of the Year for his Carnegie Hall live albums. As with most acts of his time, his musical popularity started declining after The Beatles and the British Invasion hit America with his albums and singles failing to chart after the mid-‘60s. His only big musical hit after the ‘60s was helping to organize the 1985 #1 charity hit “We Are The World” for USA For Africa being one of the many celebrities to sing on it and appear in its video.
Belafonte continued acting in movies through the ‘60s before feeling dissatisfied with the roles offered. He also guest hosted The Tonight Show in 1968 for Johnny Carson and appeared on a bunch of TV specials in the ‘60s with various celebrities. One of those specials included a performance with popular singer Petula Clark in 1968 that caused controversy over Clark holding her arm over Belafonte with the show’s sponsor demanding a reshoot over objections of a white woman holding a black man’s arm to which they refused and NBC aired the special without changes.
Outside of entertainment, Belafonte has also been a big humanitarian and activist. He was one of the big leaders of the civil rights movement becoming one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest confidants even bailing him out of jail in Birmingham along with bailing out other jailed civil rights activists. He even helped organize and finance the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, and various voter registration drives. After the civil rights movement, he’s helped around the world in various efforts such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and fighting HIV/AIDS.
At almost 93, Belafonte is still active in politics including endorsing Bernie Sanders for President and co-chairing the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. He’s also appeared in movies as recent as 2018’s BlacKkKlansmen. Meanwhile, Calypso has remained influential that in 2018 the Library of Congress inducted the album into the National Recording Registry.
Next time: For two years, America grows accustomed to the sound of Julie Andrews and Broadway’s My Fair Lady launching an era where Broadway soundtracks dominated album sales