Harry Belafonte’s memoir, My Song is reviewed in the New York Times today by Garrison Keillor. Belafonte appears in conversation with Tim Robbins at Live Talks Los Angeles on Nov 28. Ticket deets here…
Here’s an excerpt:
Here is a gorgeous account of the large life of a Harlem boy, son of a Jamaican cleaning lady, Melvine Love, and a ship’s cook, Harold Bellanfanti, who endured the grind of poverty under the watchful eye of his proud mother and waited for his chances, prepared to be lucky, and made himself into the international calypso star and popular folk singer, huge in Las Vegas, also Europe, and a mainstay of the civil rights movement of the ’60s, a confidant of Dr. King’s…..
The problem of authenticity dogged Belafonte. He wasn’t from the South, didn’t play guitar, wasn’t a true Jamaican, wasn’t African-American. He was an entertainer, an actor performing songs. The blacklist almost tripped him up in 1954, when he was accused in print of being a “Communist fronter” and Ed Sullivan, a powerful man in the television world, called Belafonte up to his apartment in the Delmonico Hotel to explain himself.
In 1956, his life more or less split in two. His album “Calypso” came out with “Jamaica Farewell” and “Day-O” and was No. 1 on the Billboardchart for 31 weeks until Elvis knocked it off. And “one day in the spring of 1956, I picked up the phone to hear a courtly Southern voice. ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King Jr.’ . . . ‘Oh, I know you,’ I said. ‘Everybody knows you.’ ”
Belafonte appeared on The Colbert Report last night. The Los Angeles Times has a bit on it. Here’s an excerpt:
Colbert pressed Belafonte on why he used his “banana-counting fame” to enact social change. “Why not just be rich and lusted after? That’s what I do.”
Belafonte replied, “I thought that the community from which I came would be better served if I would focus the light on the people who are not quite as fortunate as we are, and that I had a responsbility to reach into that misfortune and try to make a difference.”
The highlight of the interview arrived in the last minute, when Colbert coyly asked Belafonte if he still sings. Belafonte said that he does, but only occasionally. Colbert waited a beat, then quietly started singing Belafonte’s hit “Jamaica Farewell.” “Down the way where the nights are gay, and the sun shines daily on the mountaintop,” he crooned. A few seconds later, Belafonte joined in, and the two performed an unlikely duet. It was a lovely little moment.
Watch below (the singing begins around the 5:00 mark).
Here’s the video…
Harry Belafonte documentary airs on HBO on Oct 17. Here’s a piece in Bloomberg on the doc. Here’s an excerpt:
And he blended his artistry with activism, playing a key role in the civil rights movement alongside such leaders as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy (whom he pushed for more aggressive protection of blacks) and President John F. Kennedy (whom Belafonte schooled as a presidential candidate on the importance of King’s mission, while simultaneously advising King on how to work with the Kennedys).
The child of a Jamaican-born domestic worker in Harlem, Belafonte understood and condemned social injustices from a young age, and resolved to help correct them.
“I wasn’t an artist who turned activist, I was an activist who turned artist,” he explains.
Belafonte’s journey forms a connect-the-dots map of six decades of popular culture and social crusades. And it drives “Sing Your Song,” a beautifully conceived documentary about Belafonte’s life and the era the rest of us have shared with him. (It premieres Monday at 10 p.m. EDT on HBO.)
At first, he felt narcissistic and superfluous doing a documentary, says Belafonte, hosting a reporter at his awards- and mementos-filled office in the Manhattan neighborhood once known as Hell’s Kitchen.
“What have I got to say that people want to hear, if they’re not hearing it during the time I lived doing it?” he reasons. But then he learned a lesson from Marlon Brando, his old friend with whom he took acting classes in the early 1950s and subsequently became allied in the civil rights movement.
When Brando died in 2004, “I felt not only that America had lost a great artist, but a great social force,” Belafonte says. “But people knew little about his social activism, and he passed away without leaving any record of it.
“So I started going around, identifying all of the people who were my peers who had done incredible things but never talked about it. What began as a simple exercise in providing for the archives wound up taking four years of nothing but filming all over the world.”
We host Harry Belafonte at Live Talks Los Angeles on November 28. Ticket info here. He appears on the Sunday, October 16 Los Angeles Times in The Sunday Conversation series. An HBO documentary, Sing Your Song, about him airs Monday, October 17. Here’s an excerpt:
Most Americans alive today didn’t live through segregation in this country the way you did. Did you ever think you’d live to see a black president?
I think that our hearts were filled with hope, our goals were filled with promise. We pursued things we thought were difficult to achieve, but that did not inhibit our need to go for it, and that’s what we did. And fortunately a large number of citizens and leaders and genders and races and cultures came to the table at the moment of truth and made a difference. We had a lot going for us in those days, including a very active campus, which I’m glad to say has resurrected itself in New York and other parts of the country with what’s going on down on Wall Street.
What are you doing these days?
I spend a great deal of time with the youth you see on Wall Street. Many of them do not reside in the places where I spend a good deal of time — the prisons of America. I go into the communities where the youth are the most underserved and most disconnected, a lot of the ghettos, a lot of the communities that are languishing from joblessness and hopelessness. I go there and I preach the gospel of nonviolence, and I tell them about the things that Dr. King and others did.
You look at these kids on Wall Street and people say they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re misfits, except for one thing — nobody knows what to do with them because they’re nonviolent. Those of us who come from the teachings of Gandhi and Dr. King, it is interesting to me that everywhere you go, the thing that happened in Tunisia, in Libya, in Cairo, the violence you see is from the military. But this nonviolent thing seems to have become the code of the day, and I think they’re going to have to get a whole new set of rules on how to play this one, because I think we’re definitely on the right track.
But when this octogenarian sits down to discuss his new projects — a memoir titled My Song (Knopf, $30.50), out Tuesday, and the related documentary Sing Your Song, premiering on HBO Oct. 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT — he acquires an unmistakable vigor. His diction crisp, his language articulate and urgent — and playful, on occasion — Belafonte explains why he was compelled to capture his multifaceted, still-unfinished journey for posterity.
“For a long time, people had told me that I should write a book,” he says. “But celebrity books are usually buried in self-serving narcissism. So I resisted the idea.”
Then in 2004, Marlon Brando, Belafonte’s pal and fellow social crusader, died. “And he took with him stories of all the remarkable things he had done. That upset me. So I decided to take a camera and see how many others were left from my generation.” That paved the way forSing Your Song, which includes archival footage and additional interviews. (A companion CD, with the same title, was released Tuesday.)
“After I’d done all that research,” Belafonte says, “the book,” written with author and Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson, “just fell into place.”
Just a few of Harry Belafonte’s recordings and movie credits:
Calypso (1956). Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) helped make Belafonte Elvis Presley’s biggest rival on the charts.
Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (1959). The live album reveals his easy grace as a performer and his affinity for folk songs from various cultures.
An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba (1965). Belafonte and the fluid-voiced South African singer/activist earned a Grammy Award for their collaboration.
We Are the World (1985). The mother of all American charity singles is Belafonte’s brainchild. He also sang in the chorus, behind a few guys named Michael, Bruce and Stevie.
Carmen Jones (1954). Belafonte didn’t sing in his second pairing with Dorothy Dandridge — operatic vocals were dubbed in — but he smoldered.
Island in the Sun (1957). Romantic tension between characters played by Belafonte and white actress Joan Fontaine made this film controversial in the South.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Belafonte broke ground again as the leading man in a film noir produced by his own company, HarBel.
Kansas City (1996). Belafonte won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for supporting actor for playing a ’30s gangster in this Robert Altman film.
Monday, November 28, 2011
8pm (Reception 6:30-7:30pm)
An Evening with Harry Belafonte
in conversation with Tim Robbins
discussing his memoir, My Song
SORRY, EVENT IS SOLD OUT.
(There may be a few tickets at the door from no shows.)
The Aero Theatre
1328 Montana Avenue (at 14th Street)
Santa Monica, CA
Entertainer Harry Belafonte‘s entire life has been about breaking barriers. He rose out of a poverty-stricken childhood to become the first performer ever to sell a million album copies (with his Calypso in 1956.) His stardom during the civil rights era straddled racial barriers that were only just being addressed. Throughout his career, he’s befriended many important figures in both entertainment and politics—Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sidney Poitier, John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro. In his new memoir, My Song, he writes about them–and his own life–with candor and insight.
Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem in New York City in 1927. Overwhelmed and intimidated by its ghetto streets and thinking the islands to be a safer place, his immigrant mother sent him back to the island of her birth, Jamaica. The island and all its variety became his cultural reservoir.
For doing repairs in an apartment (of Clarice Taylor and Maxwell Glanville), Belafonte was given, as his gratuity, a ticket to a production of Home is the Hunter at a community theatre in Harlem – the American Negro Theatre (A.N.T.). The world that the theatre opened up to him put Belafonte, for the first time, face to face with what would be his destiny – a life in the performing arts. He joined the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research under the tutelage of the renowned German director, Erwin Piscator. With classmates like Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis – just to name a few – Belafonte became thoroughly immersed in the world of theatre. Paralleling this pursuit was his interest and love of jazz. He developed a relationship with the young architects of the art form, the geniuses of modern jazz, and on the occasion of his first professional appearance, he had Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Tommy Potter and Al Haig as his “back-up band”. Since that launching, Belafonte has sustained an inordinately successful career.
His first Broadway appearance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac earned him a Tony Award. As the first black producer in television, he won an Emmy for his CBS production of An Evening with Belafonte directed by Norman Jewison. At the dawning of his cinematic film career, Carmen Jones took top critical honors and attracted Oscar nominations.
Disturbed by cruel events unfolding in Africa due to war, drought, and famine, Belafonte set in motion the wheels that led to “We Are the World” on January 28, 1985. He contacted manager, Ken Kragen, and they, along with others, guided and directed the project known as USA for Africa. Belafonte was prominent in the contribution to the ending of the oppressive apartheid government of South Africa and for the release of his friend, Nelson Mandela after twenty-seven and a half years of incarceration.
Tim Robbins is the Artistic Director of the Actors’ Gang, formed in 1981. The Actors’ Gang has performed in over 40 US states and has toured internationally to London , Athens , Melbourne , Brisbane , Mexico , Spain and Hong Kong . With over 100 productions of originals as well as classic works to its credit, the company remains a vital and dedicated ensemble that offers free education programs for youth, goes into prisons to work with the incarcerated and offers affordable theatre for our community. As a playwright, he has written eight plays produced in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and at the Edinburgh Festival. In addition, his stage adaptation of “Dead Man Walking” is currently in its fifth year having been performed and introduced into the curriculums of over 150 universities nationwide. Having won the Academy Award as well as numerous other artistic accolades over the course of his career, Tim’s recent projects include the film “The Green Lantern” and HBO’s “Cinema Verite”, and he has just completed shooting the upcoming film “Thanks for Sharing.” He and The Rogues Gallery Band have just returned from national and international touring and have cut a new CD. Yet his passion for the stage has kept him deeply engaged as the Artistic Director at The Gang for 30 years.
$25 Live Talks Los Angeles with Harry Belafonte, 8pm (doors open at 7:30pm)
$45 also includes Belafonte’s book
$95 includes pre-event reception (6:30-7:30pm), and the book
$35 Purchase Belafonte’s book (tax and shipping included to anywhere in the US)
Proceeds from this event support The Actor’s Gang, celebrating their 30th anniversary. The Actors’ Gang is one of Los Angeles’ most enduring not-for-profit theatre arts organizations. Founded in 1981 by a group of renegade theatre artists with a mission to make theatre more accessible to a broad and diverse audience, the Gang has continued to create daring reinterpretations of the classics in its commedia dell’arte style while developing new plays that address the world today through a prism of satire, popular culture and raucous stagecraft. Raw, immediate, socially minded and always entertaining, The Gang’s productions inspire audiences to feel, think and above all, question – connecting complete strangers through a shared human experience.
The Aero Theatre
1328 Montana Avenue (at 14th Street)
Santa Monica, CA 90403