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Harry Belafonte: 1949


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Harry Belafonte
In late 1948, Harry Belafonte was having trouble finding work as an actor. At the time, he was performing with New York's American Negro Theater and studying at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in Greenwich Village. In a production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, he had to sing a song. He had no musical training nor did he have any interest in becoming a singer. But he had a good voice.

After the performance, Belafonte typically hung out at the Royal Roost on Broadway between 47th and 48th streets. He befriended jazz musicians at the club, and they came to see him perform in Of Mice and Men. When Belafonte complained that he was having trouble finding work as an actor, he was offered a job working at the Royal Roost in the kitchen. Musicians also suggested he try singing to help support himself.

One night, Lester Young told club manager Monte Kay that Belafonte was a good singer and that Kay should give him a shot. Kay asked Belafonte if he had a set's worth of material. Belafonte told him he didn't. When asked if he could play an instrument, Belafonte replied that he couldn't.

So Kay teamed Belafonte with pianist Al Haig, who helped him put together a repertoire. Two weeks later, Belafonte was ready. On that first night at the Roost, Belafonte was supposed to sing only with Haig. But as he took the stage, Max Roach came up and sat behind the drums, Tommy Potter picked up the bass and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker came up to play.

After his appearance that night, Belefonte was an actor and a signer. In 1949, he recorded two sides for Jubilee, followed by two sides in Hollywood and then two for Kay's Royal Roost label in New York. In 1951, Belafonte put together enough folk songs to open at the Sage in Greenwich Village. He then had a hugely successful run at the Village Vanguard. Belafonte's big break as a singer came in 1952, when he was signed by RCA, which had him reord Caribbean folk songs.

For today's post, let's just listen to Belafonte's entire jazz discography in 1949:

Here's Belafonte singing The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, with Zoot Sims (ts), Al Haig (p), Jimmy Raney (g), Tommy Potter (b) and Roy Haynes (d)...

Here's the flip side, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes...

Here's Whispering with a Hollywood orchestra arranged and conducted by Pete Rugolo. This song and the next, I Still Get a Thrill, may have been demos for Capitol, where Rugolo was head of jazz A&R...

Here's I Still Get a Thrill...

Here's Lean on Me with Machito, with trumpeter Howard McGhee and tenor saxophonist Brew Moore...

Here's Recognition from the same session...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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