At the end of 1956, generally conceded to be the cultural birth year of rock ‘n’ roll, the best-selling album in America was not Elvis Presley or Elvis, it was Harry Belafonte’s Calypso. Belafonte was one of America’s most popular entertainers of the mid-twentieth century and parlayed his commercial success into civil rights activism. Calypso music had come from Trinidad and Tobago, with roots in West African Kaiso music and the migration of French planters and their slaves from Martinique and Dominica:
“Back when I’d begun to conceive my next album, no one at RCA Victor, starting with my producer, Henri Rene, had wanted to devote a whole album to Caribbean island songs. I did. RCA’s executives worried that this kind of album would be too ethnic, too black, too out of the mainstream. I myself didn’t want to be typecast as a calypso singer. I recognized that calypso was only one Caribbean style among many, and I told Rene that only a few of the album’s songs would be actual calypso. Others would be, more broadly, mento music, from the hills of Jamaica, where men carved holes in wooden boxes and attached three or four pieces of flexible metal to them, each piece making its own note when played. Still others would be more akin to folk songs. The RCA executives were still wary, but by the time they were ready to release the album seven or eight months later, they sensed the coming trend. They had gone so far as to insist that it be called Calypso, over my objections. I didn’t object for very long.
“On my first two albums, I’d modified and updated existing folk songs. On Calypso, I went further. Bill Attaway, my good friend, former Sage partner, and resident musicologist, became one of my two co-writers for the album. He, in turn, told me about Lord Burgess. ‘You’ve got to meet this guy,’ Bill told me. ‘He’s the black Alan Lomax — a walking library of songs from the islands.’ …
“One of the first songs we worked up for the Calypso album was ‘Jamaica Farewell,’ a Lord Burgess retread of a traditional island song called ‘Ironbar.’ It would become one of my best-known, most-loved songs. Another island favorite we picked up on was ‘Hill and Gully Rider,’ better known as the ‘Banana Boat Song.’ … [We] started bouncing new lyric ideas off each other for this old favorite. The story line in all versions was the same: After a night spent loading bananas onto boats for export, the tired farmers singing the song saw daylight breaking and wanted to go home. The ‘Banana Boat Song’ was how islanders knew it. … The island slang ‘Day-o’ appeared in the lyrics of one version or another, but it was buried — a throwaway line. I came up with the idea of starting our version with a dramatic a cappella ‘Day-o‘ that resonated. … It grabbed the listener and didn’t let him go.
“We called our version ‘Day-O,’ and made it the album’s opening track, but none of us had any idea, when we recorded it, that it would be spun off as a single, much less rocket up the charts. The fact was that after I had pushed RCA into using only Caribbean songs, we found ourselves one or two songs short, so we threw in ‘Day-O’ as filler. … We felt sure that our single, if we had one, would be “Matilda” or “Jamaica Farewell.” …
“By July 14, 1956, Calypso had risen to number three on the Billboard album chart, just behind Elvis. On September 8, it hit the number one spot — and kept hitting it, off and on, for thirty-one weeks. No album had done that before.
“But there was more: Calypso stayed on the Billboard chart, usually in one of the upper slots and then fading ever so slowly, for ninety-nine weeks. Not until Michael Jackson’s Thriller would an album stay longer on the charts. …
“All through the last half of 1956, Elvis and I traded top places with each other on that Billboard chart. I’d been around a bit longer, but Elvis was now huge, after his scandalous, hip-gyrating television appearances, and so not surprisingly, his follow-up album, Elvis, knocked Calypso out of the top spot by early December.
“Here, though, is the historical fact: At the end of that landmark year, generally conceded to be the birth year of rock ‘n’ roll, the bestselling album wasn’t Elvis Presley or Elvis. It was Calypso. Critics took bets on which kind of music would prevail, rock ‘n’ roll or calypso. Even well into 1957, many critics predicted calypso would win. … By the end of that next year, of course, the raw power of Presley’s rhythm-and-blues rock ‘n’ roll would dominate the charts, and calypso as a trend would peter out.”
Harry Belafonte, M..
|title:||My Song: A Memoir|
|publisher:||First Vintage Books|
|date:||Copyright 2011 by Harry Belafonte|