Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Harry Belafonte Dies at 96

Only the Best: Barrier-smashing singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, who once boasted of being “the most popular Jew in America” because of his rendition of a Hebrew classic, died Tuesday [April 25] at his longtime Upper West Side home. He was 96.

Harry Belafonte 1957

Thus reports Lisa Keys for JTA. Who continues:

The New York City native was the one of the first Black artists to achieve widespread commercial success in the United States, and while he was raised Catholic, his life frequently dovetailed with Jewish causes, values and people. 

Among Belafonte’s many Jewish connections — which included brokering a meeting between Nelson Mandela and Jewish leaders in 1989 — was his marriage to his Jewish second wife, dancer Julie Robinson. The couple, who were married from 1958 to 2004, raised two children, Gina and David.

In 2011, Belafonte revealed in his autobiography, “My Song: A Memoir” that his paternal grandfather was Jewish. 
Belafonte’s parents were both Jamaican immigrants: his mother, Melvine, was the child of a white mother from Scotland and a Black father, and his father, Harold George Bellanfanti, who later changed the family name, was the son of a Black mother and white Dutch-Jewish father. 
In his book, Belafonte describes his paternal grandfather, whom he never met, as “a white Dutch Jew who drifted over to the islands after chasing gold and diamonds, with no luck at all.” 

Now, for some of you, Abq Jew's younger loyal readers, your first encounter with Harry Belafonte may have been the soundtrack of the 1988 Tim Burton film Beetlejuice. Others of you - Abq Jew's older loyal readers, who have known Harry Belafonte for a long, long time  - will find this hard to believe.

Day-o! But we continue. With the best rendition of The Banana Boat Song ever to appear on screen. As everyone knows.

When it comes to Harry Belafonte, there is (in Abq Jew's family tradition) the double album Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (recorded April 19 and April 20, 1959) - and then there is every other Harry Belafonte album in the world.

Belafonte Carnegie

For those who may not remember - wait! How could you not remember? Anyway, Wikipedia tells us:
Belafonte at Carnegie Hall is a live double album by Harry Belafonte issued by RCA Victor. It is the first of two Belafonte Carnegie Hall albums, and was recorded on April 19 and April 20, 1959. The concerts were benefits for The New Lincoln School and Wiltwyck School, respectively. 
The album stayed on the charts for over three years [and was nominated for Album of the Year at the 1959 Grammy Awards].  
The Rolling Stone Album Guide wrote that the album captured "a spectacular live performance."
Here are a few of the songs on that magnificent album, to this day considered by many the greatest recorded concert by an individual performer.

Mama Look a Boo Boo. A delightful children's song (NOT), particularly memorable because Belafonte sings the phrase "or is it the fact that I'm ugly?" Who in God's name was he kidding? Hah!

Man Smart, Woman Smarter. Another delightful song explaining the facts of life. Memorable because Belafonte sings the phrase "You meet a girl at a pretty dance" - showing how the folk tradition works, how words can be bent or moved to fit the musical beat.

Hava Nagila. When it comes to singing Hava Nagila, there is Harry Belafonte - and then there is everyone else. Harry Belafonte himself (of course!) put it best:

When you find a song that says ‘Let us rejoice,’ there’s no better song to leave an evening with. Hava Nagila tells us who we should be and what we, in a fundamental sense, aspire to be — peoples of love and joy and peace.

But wait

Matilda. Did you think Abq Jew would forget? The whole mishpoocha now! 

Sing out the chorus! Sing a little louder! Sing out the music!

Memory blessing

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