Harry Belafonte, the 95-year-old musician, activist, and actor, received the Early Influence Award at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. And to mark the occasion, Legacy Recordings has announced the repressing of two of the artist’s most influential albums, Belafonte Sings the Blues and Belafonte at Carnegie Hall.
In a statement, Belafonte said of the HOF acknowledgment: “Thank you, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, for honoring me with this induction. It’s always a thrill to know the music I presented to the world so many years ago still resonates to this day.”
Belafonte has been breaking records and breaking down barriers since his unparalleled career began in the 1950s. Known for his lyrical baritone and emotive sound, Belafonte redefined black culture as he introduced many Americans to it while using his art as an instrument of social change on a global scale.
Belafonte Sings the Blues and Belafonte at Carnegie Hall are both widely celebrated for Belafonte’s vocal performances and the benchmark audio quality of the recordings. A rarity for the time, Carnegie Hall was one of the first popular live concert albums to be released. It stayed on the charts for over three years and was nominated for Album of the Year at the 1959 Grammy Awards. It was released as a double LP and featured a 47-piece orchestra.
A personal favorite of Belafonte’s, Blues was his first album to be recorded in stereo and found him interpreting the works of Ray Charles (including “A Fool For You” and “Mary Ann”), Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child,” C.C. Carter’s “Cotton Fields” and others with an unrivaled charisma and vocal dexterity that helped establish him as one of the great performers of our time.
Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927 to multiethnic parents from the Caribbean. As a child, he moved to his mother’s native Kingston, Jamaica—“an environment that sang”—where he was exposed to the captivating music of calypso as well as prejudice based on his skin tone. Back in New York, Belafonte began acting classes at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop in 1945, where he befriended actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson, the inspiration for Belafonte’s social activism. Swept up in the New York folk scene in 1950, Belafonte created a new repertoire of folk songs, work songs, and calypsos, providing an authentic and dignified look at Black life and earning him a contract with RCA Victor in 1953.
In 1955, Belafonte met Irving Burgie (aka Lord Burgess), whose songwriting on Belafonte’s debut album would forever change Belafonte’s career. The first album to sell over a million copies in a year, Calypso (1956) introduced Caribbean folk music to American audiences, who dubbed Belafonte the King of Calypso. This early sound made a lasting impact on American music – Gotye, Lil’ Wayne, and Jason Derulo have all sampled “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” in recent years, while “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)” was featured in the 1988 film Beetlejuice and its 2019 Broadway musical production.
In the 1960s, Belafonte returned to his musical roots in American folk, jazz, and standards, while also emerging as a strong voice for the civil rights movement. Belafonte was a close confidante, friend, and supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. He helped organize “We Are the World” and has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 1987. He was a Grand Marshal for the 2013 New York City Pride Parade and advised on the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.
At the age of 95, Belafonte has epitomized the life of a world citizen, living by a single truth: “Get them to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are, and if they’ve made that first step, we can find a solution to hate.”
Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Ripple Of Hope Awards