Garrison Keillor reviews Harry Belafonte’s MY SONG for The New York Times

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, who lived for years in a U-shaped 21-room apartment on West End Avenue, but never forgot what he ran so hard to escape from, the four or five families squeezed into a few rooms, the smell of Caribbean food cooking, the shared bathroom, his father drunk, yelling, blood on his hands, beating his mother, and “a terrible claustrophobic closet of fear.”

His mother found refuge in the Catholic Church. The Holy Roller preachers of her native Jamaica were “too niggerish” for her. She loved the marble majesty of Catholicism and sent the boy off to parochial school to suffer at the hands of the nuns and took him to Mass every Sunday, dressed in a blue suit, and afterward to the Apollo Theater to hear Cab Calloway or Count Basie or Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald. “As suffocating and interminable as Mass seemed, I could endure it if I knew that a few short hours later I’d be in the real cathedral of spirituality . . . the Apollo.”

Ellington lived nearby, so did Lang­ston Hughes. “Most of the famous black Americans of the day lived there, rubbing shoulders with the rest of us; they certainly weren’t welcome in the fancy buildings south of 96th Street.” One of the boy’s heroes was A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. “I just loved watching him lead his troops through Harlem on parade, with their red collars and shiny buttons and red caps tilted just so. Everyone admired the porters . . . because they were worldly — they traveled far and wide — and because most had college degrees.”

Discouraged by the grind, his mother took 9-year-old Harry and his younger brother, Dennis, back to Jamaica in 1936. Harry loved his white Jamaican grandmother, Jane, who lived in a wood-frame house on stilts on a hillside near Ocho Rios (“For the rest of my life, I would feel an unusual sense of ease in moving between races and classes — an ease that would help me as an entertainer, later as an activist,” which “traces to the fact that Jane, who was as white and blue-eyed as a person can be, so enveloped me with love”), but his mother delivered him to a British-style boarding school as he begged her to change her mind.

“I watched the taxi roll off, and the school gates close behind it. Finally I ran at the gate, devastated, and put my face through the bars, howling with grief and fear. . . . I wept and wept. I couldn’t eat that night; I didn’t take a proper meal for days. Then one morning I woke up and found myself completely self-reliant. My mother had abandoned me; nothing could change that fact. I would never again look to my mother for love. I was now a world of one.”

Back in New York, he dropped out of high school, worked odd jobs, enlisted in the Navy, got out in 1945 and went to work as a janitor in an apartment building on Amsterdam Avenue. One day he installed Venetian blinds for a tenant, an actress in the American Negro Theater, who gave him tickets to a play they were performing — “about returning black servicemen trying to establish postwar lives in Harlem. . . . That play didn’t just speak to me. It mesmerized me.” He joined the company, then a thea­ter workshop at the New School — fellow students: Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Elaine Stritch, Wally Cox, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando. “I’d never met a white man who so thoroughly embraced black culture. He loved going with me to jazz clubs. . . . Marlon was a prankster; if he saw you napping, he’d tie your shoelaces together. . . . But as a friend, he was bedrock loyal.” One of the jazz clubs was the Royal Roost, where the saxophonist Lester Young played. He saw Harry sing onstage in a New School production and got him a gig at the Roost. “I’m not a singer. What you saw me do was acting,” said Harry Belafonte, but he took the job for $70 a week singing standards like “Pennies From Heaven” and “Stardust” and “Skylark” and made his debut backed by Charlie Parker, Max Roach on drums, Tommy Potter on bass and Lester Young’s pianist, Al Haig — four jazz luminaries doing a favor for a 21-year-old guy they knew because he hung around the club a lot.

He did 22 weeks at the Royal Roost, made a record that Symphony Sid promoted on his WJZ radio show, played the Black Orchid in Chicago and the Rendez-Vous Room in Philly, then Café Society in New York for more than $350 a week. (“I had a voice the crowd liked, and a look. . . . And for white audiences, I carried a reassuring presence, enhanced by my Caribbean diction. Black, but . . . not too black.”) And then, in 1951, under the influence of Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger and friends in the Village, he turned toward folk music — “Shenandoah” and chain-gang songs and ballads — played three months at the Village Vanguard, then two months at the Blue Angel on East 55th, and in 1952 made his first calypso record, “Man Smart (Woman Smarter).” Seven years out of the Navy, he had a record deal with RCA Victor and an MGM movie, “Bright Road,”with Dorothy Dandridge, and his Las Vegas debut at the Thunderbird, where he learned that he could master a crowd of loud drunks by walking onstage stern-faced and singing at the top of his voice a chain-gang song ­(“timmmmbber! Lord, this timber gotta roll”) and then another, maybe a third, unsmiling, no word of greeting. “I would feel the crowd growing tense. When at last I switched to an upbeat song — and flashed them a first grin — I could hear the collective sigh. . . . For the rest of the act, I could be as light and jokey as I wanted to be. They were mine.”

Years later, cast as a gangster in Robert Altman’s “Kansas City,” Belafonte writes, “I realized I could play mean. I just had to summon that old hard streak, the one that had pulled me out of poverty.”

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.’ ”

King was known for the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, which had begun in December, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person. King invited Belafonte to meet him at a fund-­raising rally at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. “His sermon from the pulpit of that Harlem church rocked me. . . . He might be young — two years younger than I was — but he was fully loaded.” Belafonte was struck by King’s sense of calm. “He seemed unaffected by the crowd, at peace with himself. . . . I was taken by his humility. It wasn’t false humility; I knew the difference. Nor was it humility in the service of charm. This man was both determined to do what he saw as his mission — and truly overwhelmed by it. . . . Here was the real deal, a leader both inspired and daunted by the burden he’d taken on. . . . I said I’d help him any way I could. And for the next 12 years, that’s what I did.”

As the Beatles arrive in 1964, Belafonte is still hot — a month after the Fab Four get 13 minutes on the Sullivan show, Bela­fonte gets 22 minutes — “but that giddy sense of being the hottest thing in showbiz — that would start to fade.” His band goes electric and he injures his voice trying to sing over it and goes to a doctor who removes a node on his vocal cords and his voice is never the same. A disaster for a singer, which Belafonte deals with in a few paragraphs. The March on Birmingham takes up almost 20 pages.

(Belafonte the activist and unabashed lefty who didn’t hesitate to get in Bobby Kennedy’s face is still alive and kicking. “About my own life, I have no complaints,” he writes. “Yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago. And as I write this, our president has yet to acknowledge that this fact is of any concern to him. . . . For all of his smoothness and intellect, Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they white or black.”)

Dr. King is one strong strand in “My Song”; another is Belafonte’s family saga through three marriages with four children; another is his inner life, psycho­analysis, the wounds of childhood, his gambling addiction; another, the oddity of show business, the casual flings, the personal manager who turned out to be an F.B.I. informer. Indelible characters pass by: Sidney Poitier, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Fidel Castro, Miriam Makeba. Fascinating segues: you go from Frank Sinatra’s bad temper at the baccarat table in a casino (“Frank would start out cool, though even then, you sensed his lethal edge”) straight to a lunch date with Martin and Coretta in Atlanta as the civil rights movement is picking up steam. Scenes of extravagant waste, scenes of righteous anger — rich contradictions abound — with little attempt to explain them away, a mark of the honest autobiographer.

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