Live at Carnegie Hall
"Day-O" Done Dramatically
Adecade into his recording career, the singer Harry Belafonte had mastered what was then common practice for live performers: Rather than merely sing hits, artists would cluster songs into thematic groups, creating minature music-theater tableaux. Belafonte's shows opened with a set entitled "Moods of the American Negro" and contained a segment called "In the Caribbean" that featured his hits "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" and "Jamaica Farewell," and another spotlighting folk songs from "'Round the World."
The evening was tightly scripted and cleverly connected, and yet on this landmark live set drawn from two benefit concerts in April 1959, the dapper Belafonte manages to make it sound impromptu. He's electric even when he whispers, and when he puts his full lung power behind a song like the a cappella opener "Darlin' Cora," he's downright devastating. He obviously enjoys hearing the way this famous hall cradles his instrument. (Indeed, this is a gem of a recording, with more warmth and dimension than was common at the time; details like the crack of Danny Barrajanos's conga drum are gloriously free of distortion, and the forty-seven-piece orchestra is there when needed, but never intrusive.)
Belafonte was riding a string of hits, notably the island idyll "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," at the time of this appearance; that song and another bit of island wisdom, "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)," helped keep this album on the charts for three full years. As both a singer and actor, he'd developed a reputation as a maverick (a few albums later his The Midnight Special would be the first recording of a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan), primarily for confronting racial issues often glossed over at the time. Whether this singer's singer is delivering African American spirituals, the keening Irish ballad "Danny Boy," or his singalong debut hit "Matilda," it is his ability to communicate the soul of a people that gives Belafonte's interpretations such stirring power. Still.
Released: 1959, RCA
Key Tracks: "Darlin' Cora," "Matilda," "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)," "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)."
Catalog Choice: Calypso; Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall
Next Stop: Jill Scott: Beautifully Human/Words and Sounds, Vol. 2
Book Pages: 72–73