Belafonte grew up, poverty-ridden, in Harlem and Jamaica. His mother was a complex woman--caring but withdrawn, eternally angry and rarely satisfied. His father was distant and physically abusive. It was not an easy life, but it instilled in young Harry the hard-nosed toughness of the city and the resilient spirit of the Caribbean lifestyle. It also gave him the drive to make good and channel his anger into actions that were positive and life-affirming. His journey led to the U.S. Navy during World War II, where he encountered an onslaught of racism but also fell in love with the woman he eventually married. After the war he moved back to Harlem, where he drifted between odd jobs until he saw his first stage play--and found the life he wanted to lead. Theater opened up a whole new world, one that was artistic and political and made him realize that not only did he have a need to express himself, he had a lot to express.
He began as an actor--and has always thought of himself as such--but was quickly spotted in a musical, began a tentative nightclub career, and soon was on a meteoric rise to become one of the world's most popular singers. Belafonte was never content to simply be an entertainer, however. Even at enormous personal cost, he could not shy away from activism. At first it was a question of personal dignity: breaking down racial barriers that had never been broken before, achieving an enduring popularity with both white and black audiences. Then his activism broadened to a lifelong, passionate involvement at the heart of the civil rights movement and countless other political and social causes. The sections on the rise of the civil rights movement are perhaps the most moving in the book: his close friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr.; his role as a conduit between Dr. King and the Kennedys; his up-close involvement with the demonstrations and awareness of the hatred and potential violence around him; his devastation at Dr. King's death and his continuing fight for what he believes is right.
But My Song is far more than the history of a movement. It is a very personal look at the people in that movement and the world in which Belafonte has long moved. He has befriended many beloved and important figures in both entertainment and politics--Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sidney Poitier, John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Tony Bennett, Bill Clinton--and writes about them with the same exceptional candor with which he reveals himself on every page. This is a book that pulls no punches, and turns both a loving and critical eye on our country's cultural past.
As both an artist and an activist, Belafonte has touched countless lives. With My Song, he has found yet another way to entertain and inspire us. It is an electrifying memoir from a remarkable man.
- ISBN-13: 9780307272263
- ISBN-10: 0307272265
- Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
- Publish Date: October 2011
- Page Count: 480
- Dimensions: 9.37 x 6.62 x 1.55 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-09-26
- Reviewer: Staff
Belafonte, actor and activist, whose voice is known to millions for his opening line, “Day-O!” to “The Banana Boat Song,” stepped out of a life of poverty and up to a microphone in the late 1940s, launching a brilliant career as a singer, actor, and activist. With lyrical grace, he chronicles his life from early childhood—where a violent father made life difficult for him, his brother, and his mother—and his first singing engagements, to the difficulties in his own marriages, the grueling life on the show circuit, and his later involvement in the civil rights movement and other social causes. After his hitch in the service, he enrolls in acting lessons with the American Negro Theater, where he meets his life-long friend, Sidney Poitier, and numerous other influential black actors. On a cold January night in 1949, the owner of the Royal Roost night club in New York asks Belafonte to sing a few numbers during intermission for Lester Young’s band; astonished and anxious, the young singer steps onto the stage and finds himself backed by Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Al Haig, and Tommy Potter, four of jazz’s greatest musicians, and his musical career takes off. These musicians’ generosity instill the same compassion in him, and his encounter with great concert singer, athlete, and actor Paul Robeson teaches him that he can use his music and his concerts as pulpits for important causes. Belafonte sometimes exhausts with too many details, but he mostly carries us liltingly along with his song that the best times always lie ahead as long as we take care of each other. (Oct.)
Tuneful bios strike the right note
This year brings thoughtful looks back at the careers of legendary musicians, whose public lives and stirring songs have moved listeners from the 1940s to the instantaneous now.
Pearl Jam Twenty is a book to get lost in, the kind to open slowly, a book that draws you in by its feel, its heft, its outward austerity. Like liner notes, it at once celebrates the band’s cool and invites you to find in them some piece of yourself—the conversations scrawled on concert tickets, the set lists smoothed out after having been balled up and cast aside, the image of 50,000 arms raised in the air. The message is clear: We can’t believe we created all this, and we couldn’t have done it without you.
Twenty is a fan book, both a companion piece for and a thing apart from the Cameron Crowe documentary of the same name. Crowe sets the tone with an adoring and personal introduction to the book: Defying the stereotypes of self-destructive American rock bands, Pearl Jam has managed to stay true to their own creative process with a “clear-eyed spirit that comes from believing in people and music and its power to change.” Through snippets of interviews and conversations that span more than two decades, Twenty is a nearly week-by-week account of the band’s triumphs, failures and history-making success.
STILL MY GUITAR
As a boy, George Harrison was bad in school and curious about guitars. In Hamburg, Harrison transformed from a boy into a man and, with his mates, into the most beloved musical act of all time. As a Beatle, he marveled at the mania circling his life, often turning a skilled and curious lens back at those swirling hordes. Eventually, his curiosity would again transform him, this time sending him Eastward and inward toward the mysticism of LSD and Hindu spirituality. Later, out of pure interest, he would go on to bankroll Monty Python’s Life of Brian and sponsor a young Formula One champion.
An ode to “the quiet Beatle,” George Harrison: Living in the Material World is linear and chronological. Its author, Harrison’s widow Olivia Harrison, shies away from direct personal commentary. Despite the near lack of point of view, the images themselves tell a story of two Georges: the public and the spiritual, the wry and the despondent. It’s a striking companion piece to the recent Martin Scorsese documentary of the same name that aired on HBO.
The two most powerful images in the book were taken by Harrison himself. One is of a cadre of faceless photographers shooting away at him from beneath the giant, menacing blade of an airplane propeller, an unbroken ring of onlookers gawking from the sidelines of the landing strip. The other is a self-portrait in the mirror, years later, of a hollow, bearded face holding a ball of pure light and ringed, Christ-like, by the reflected aura of the flash.
With 260 images and hundreds more diary clippings, quotes and reminiscences from his famous friends, Living in the Material World exposes Harrison in a manner true to his legacy: richly, with quiet steps, into an open-ended finish.
Harry Belafonte’s My Song: A Memoir is a surprising, captivating portrait of the plucky singer and actor. From an impoverished boyhood with his stern Jamaican mother, to the showbiz break given him by jazz legends Charlie Parker and Max Roach, to his integral role in the nonviolent civil rights movement, and on to his continued passions as an entertainer and activist in Africa and around the world, this is an American life sustained by humanity and well worth its weight in words.
Co-author Michael Shnayerson writes deftly and with great power in a highly readable style. The story never flies too high, grounding itself in the humble past each time it nears soaring. This plays well for Belafonte, who comes across as entirely genuine. He’s equally frank when sharing the stories of his counsel with civil rights leaders, his friendship with Sidney Poitier and his mischievous pursuits of the women in his life. But the book focuses on Belafonte’s lifelong fight against injustice, a fight he continues today. After all, “Banana Boat Song” might sound like a romp, but day-o! is the cry of an abused working class.
BIRD ON THE WIRE
Part memoir of a lifelong struggle with alcohol, part litany of names, places and events associated with the folk movement of the 1960s, Judy Collins’ Sweet Judy Blue Eyes is on all counts a ballad in a familiar key. Collins is famous for her crystal-clear voice and weepy eyes, and for transfiguring the songs of others. Here, she sings in her own words, telling her own tale. But her deep connection to her father, who passed on to her the gift of music and the curse of booze, is sweetly recounted, and the struggles behind the music are told with a light touch. Collins has a remarkable set of memories to share, a view from the inside of America’s most legendary musical moment—Baez, Dylan, Stills, Cohen—and she paints it vividly with a sharp if occasionally odd sense of detail.