Remembering a live performance by a legend
by Marshall Bowden
When I say that Harry Belafonte has been a presence in my entire life since birth straight through to last month, when he passed on at the age of 96, I am not exaggerating. My parents played the double LP recording of his 1959 Carnegie Hall concerts frequently (their copy remains in my collection to this day), and so I learned not only Harry’s repertoire but a basic group of folk songs from regions across the globe.
They bought tickets for the entire family to see Mr. Belafonte when he came to the Mill Run Playhouse in nearby Niles, Illinois. The Mill Run Playhouse was one of those new cultural elements that were built in the suburbs to the northwest of Chicago. It was theater in the round, with its 1600 seats arranged on all sides of its stage, making it perfect for theatrical productions (I remember that Jesus Christ Superstar ran there for a time) and children’s shows. It was also perfect, because of its layout and its intimate size, as a venue for performers who would typically perform in nightclubs: comedians, dancers, and singers of the type who would be booked in top casinos on the Vegas strip. Artists who played there included Sonny & Cher, Ike & Tina Turner, The Osmonds, Ray Charles, and more.
I don’t have the exact date of the concert, but based on some of the songs I remember him performing, I believe it was 1977-1978. He performed with a small band that was in the pit behind him or possibly at one side of the stage. As a budding musician it was very exciting to see a group of live musicians backing a singer this way, helping to create the energy that was manifested onstage. Harry, dressed in a colorful, loose-fitting shirt, was also backed by female singers and dancers, who wore colorful, flowing dresses.
By this point in his career, Belafonte was known as much as an actor, producer, human rights advocate, and leader as a singer. The whole King of Calypso thing still followed him, even though he was musically doing more of a world music vibe. The final collection of calypso numbers he recorded was 1971’s Calypso Carnival, a collaboration with studio musician and songwriter Ralph MacDonald.
MacDonald started his career with Belafonte when he was only 17 years old. He accompanied a friend to an audition for Belafonte’s band and became a fixture at rehearsals after his friend got the gig. One day a steel drum player didn’t show up for rehearsal; MacDonald volunteered to play and got the job, thus starting a ten year gig with Belafonte that proved invaluable. He learned the music business, played with a touring act, and met Bill Salter, who would be his partner in a successful songwriting career. According to MacDonald’s official website bio: “At one point, young MacDonald had the nerve to tell Harry Belafonte that despite all the gold records on the wall, Belafonte didn’t really know what Calypso was. Belafonte said ‘Fine kid – if you know so much because your father was a Calypso singer, then you write me a song.’ MacDonald delivered an album of songs”.
Calypso Carnival is a pretty cool album, and its leadoff track, ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’ was one of the songs I remember Harry Belafonte and his band performing live at Mill Run. ‘Chinita’ is another track where MacDonald’s arrangement emphasizes the Latin rhythms of the Caribbean. MacDonald helped provide Belafonte with a much needed update to his signature Calypso sound, adding a layer of authenticity while remaining within the bounds of Belafonte’s easy listening, largely white, audience. Shortly after, MacDonald would leave Belafonte’s employ and strike out on his own, co-writing, with Salter, such hits as “Where Is the Love” and “Just the Two of Us.”
Belafonte’s career continued on, and as the seventies progressed he became equally known for his work on film and as a human rights ambassador. Around the time of this show that I attended, he released an album called Turn the World Around. The record was his first record since 1973’s Play Me, and his debut for Columbia Records after nearly twenty years with RCA. The record marks a return to Belafonte’s status as a performer of folk songs from around the world, with an emphasis on both Caribbean and African musical elements.
One of the highlights of the concert for me, was Harry’s performance of “New York Taxi’ from the Turn the World Around album. With its Afro-Caribbean rhythms that build on Belafonte’s calypso phrasing, the song is a tour de force in performance, with Harry and his background singers and musicians repeating the chorus while promenading around the stage, eventually exiting altogether as the remaining musicians finish the song. When I saw him perform this song it was the concluding song of the first part of his show, after which there was an intermission.
This performance, recorded live at the Circus Krone in Munich, Germany in 1980, is pretty much exactly the way I remember the performance that I saw. Notice Harry’s intro to the song, which explains its meaning:
“This song is dedicated to all the black people of New York City, who are living in midtown Manhattan, trying to catch a taxi cab to go up to Harlem.”
In short, the song is about trying to hail a taxi in NYC while black, and anyone who knows anything about American urban life knows that taxi cabs would often simply not stop to pick up black riders because they were fearful that they would be robbed and/or because they were afraid to drive clients to certain neighborhoods. In other words, the song addresses an issue associated with racism that black people regularly face. It’s a perfect example of how Harry Belafonte could address racial and social issues in ways there went down fairly easily for his audience. And that audience heard and was affected by Belafonte’s stance and performances in ways that helped advance the struggle for civil rights.
At the show my parents and I saw the Chicago Sun Times columnist Irv Kupcinet was also in attendance. Kupcinet went way back to the days when a local gossip/entertainment columnist was an essential part of a major newspaper. His contemporaries were Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell, and Kupcinet was every bit as influential in the Chicago entertainment world as those columnists were in New York and Hollywood. My father pointed him out, sitting in the front row with his wife. Glancing at him from our vantage point several rows back, I could see that he was occasionally nodding off for periods of time–actually dozing off during the show. Admittedly Kupcinet was in his early sixties at the time (he lived into his early nineties), but even so it seemed incredible to me as a young man that anyone could doze during such a dynamic show, even a bit rude. But I was unaware of the close relationship between the two, going back to Harry’s early days playing nightclubs when he first came to the United States.
In his 2011 memoir My Song, Belafonte recollects the night in 1964 that he got a call relating that three civil rights volunteers, two white and one black, had been murdered by the KKK in Mississippi. It was necessary to raise some $50,000 to help keep volunteers in the state to register new voters in the wake of the intimidation thrown at them. He had no doubts about his course of action:
“I flew to Chicago. Irv Kupcinet, as powerful a columnist in his city as Walter Winchell was in New York, gathered dozens of guests at his home on a day or two’s notice. White guests, bearing checkbooks. Why did I, as a black performer, have such sway with Irv and his friends? Our friendship traced back to my club circuit days as a young troubadour in the early fifties, but our personal history was just one part of it…Galvanized by the shocking news of the volunteers’ murders, Irv’s guests thrust cash and checks at me as if I was the personal emissary of the civil rights movement. Which in a way, in that place and on that evening, I was. “
I’ll always be grateful to my parents for taking me to see Harry Belafonte. It was a powerful and joyous performance that made me understand just why he was such a beloved entertainer. You can read about a performer and understand their importance in the cultural firmament, but experiencing it for yourself is something else again. Certainly it was an evening I’ll never forget.