LIVE: Harry Belafonte @ The Egg, 11/11/17
By Greg Haymes
Harry Belafonte was my mom’s favorite singer, which meant that I heard his melifluous voice – especially his albums Belafonte at Carnegie Hall and Love Is a Gentle Thing – emanating from the big living room console all throughout my formative years, interspersed with selections from my dad’s collection of jazz albums.
Belafonte was also one of the first concerts that I ever saw as part of a family outing – an early-’60s show at Melody Fair (a revolving in-the-round summer theater in North Tonawanda, much like Latham’s Colonie Coliseum/Starlite Music Theatre) with the fabulous acoustic blues duo of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee as the opening act.
At The Egg’s Hart Theatre earlier this month, I knew he wouldn’t be singing, but the prospect of hearing his wisdom and his voice – now equal parts gravel and gravitas – was alluring enough to coax me out.
In conversation with WAMC-FM honcho Alan Chartock – who wisely kept his questions to a minimum – the 90-year-old Mr. Belafonte spun long and thoughtful responses talking about his mother, Donald Trump (“a dangerous, dangerous man”), Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Robinson, J. Edgar Hoover (“I’d rather talk about Trump”), Eleanor Roosevelt, Sidney Poitier, Jim Henson (“I wish we had more Jim Hensons and fewer talk shows”) and especially the Civil Rights crusade with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (or “Doc,” as he called him).
It wasn’t until the very end of the 90-minute conversation that the topic turned to music, and Belafonte revealed that he never actually thought of himself as a singer. Rather he always visualized himself as an actor – an actor playing the part of a singer, which is what he did in the New School’s “Of Mice and Men,” one of his first theater productions.
After rehearsals, Belafonte would hang out at the jazz club the Royal Roost listening to the greats of the day, including sax legend Lester Young, who he befriended. Later, when Belafonte was down and out and looking for work, it was Young who suggested he try singing and finally arranged for him to make his debut as an intermission act at the Roost, accompanied by pianist Al Haig.
And during the short Tuesday night intermission gig in 1949 that marked the nightclub debut of the 21-year-old Belafonte, the bandstand slowly – and quite unexpectedly – grew one by one, as the singer was joined onstage by an all-star, Hall of Fame line-up of musicians that included Miles Davis, Max Roach and Charlie Parker.
“And I never looked back,” Belafonte recalled.
The story was also capped off with one of the evening’s many words of wisdom from Belafonte, “The best thing you can do is, any time you hear a knock at the door, answer it.”