Harry Belafonte's influence on pop music is much more far reaching then many realize, as he was one of the first performers to bring worldbeat rhythms to the U.S.
charts in the postwar era.
Born in Harlem, but spending a good part of his childhood in his mother's native Jamaica, Belafonte grew up straddling cultures and musical styles, and bridging perceived differences became his calling card as an entertainer.
His silky smooth mixture of jazz, folk, pop, and art song, often with impossibly infectious West Indies-styled accompaniment, coupled with his charismatic good looks and easy, hip coolness and sharp racial and political sense meant he was never reduced to being a mere commodity, even though he spent his whole career on major labels.
This generous two-disc set (both discs track in at over 70 minutes) is the first affordable cross-label Belafonte collection to combine highlights from his stays at both the RCA and CBS labels, and the selections included here, spanning the years 1952 to 1977, were made by Belafonte himself.
There's very little to quibble about (although one wonders about including a live version of his biggest hit, "Banana Boat Song (Day O)," instead of the original single version), and this thoughtfully sequenced set is easily the best introduction to the full range of his work currently on the market.
Highlights are many, but include a 20-year-old Bob Dylan sitting in on harmonica for 1962's "Midnight Special," a defining version of Irving Burgie's gorgeous "Jamaica Farewell" from 1956, the adventurous worldbeat arrangement of "Turn the World Around" from 1977, an emotionally balanced rendition of Pete Seeger's haunting "Those Three Were on My Mind" from 1967, and an irresistible horn-led version of "Jump in the Line" from 1966's Calypso in Brass album.
Belafonte's versatility may surprise some casual listeners who are only familiar with "Day O," and this set underscores his unique ability to find pop success with artful and socially committed material.
Innovative, intelligent, and unceasingly creative, Belafonte is long overdue for a critical reappraisal.