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How Greenwich Village Helped Save Harry Belafonte

In 1951, Harry Belafonte decided he was finished with singing. For the past few years, he had been taking acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School with the influential German director Erwin Piscator, alongside Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier. All the while he was performing with the American Negro Theater. Belafonte was passionate about the craft, but the aspiring actor’s career was going nowhere. He spent his evenings hanging out in midtown jazz clubs, complaining to his friends about his lackluster prospects. These friends, all jazz musicians, were the ones who convinced him to start singing, as a simple side gig, to support himself.

The first time he appeared in front of an audience, he was backed by the Charlie Parker band, which included Parker himself, Max Roach and Miles Davis. He soon found a consistent paying gig, singing between sets at The Royal Roost. While he had no musical training nor interest in singing as a career, he had a good voice. He quickly signed on with the Roost recording label in 1949, launching his career as a pop singer, but he hated it. “I’m not a pop singer,” he said in an interview. “I’m here reading Shakespeare and dissecting ‘Othello,’ and looking at ‘Macbeth.’ Being a pop singer is not what it’s about. And I quit.” So he left show business, all together, using the money he made from singing to open a burger joint, called the Sage Coffee Shop, with two friends in Greenwich Village.

The Sage Coffee Shop, located on Seventh Avenue South close to Bleecker Street, was a humble affair. They couldn’t afford a cook, so Belafonte got behind the counter and learned how to flip burgers and cook eggs, making meals that Belafonte admits were “not very good.” Neither his restaurant nor his conviction to leave music lasted long. Being in the West Village brought him in contact with the legendary jazz club, the Village Vanguard, where he saw folk legends like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie perform. Soon the jukebox at the Sage was playing folk classics by Burl Ives, Josh White, and the Weavers. His fascination with folk music intensified and he began learning folk songs through the Library of Congress’s archives. 

Belafonte’s first album, “Mark Twain” And Other Folk Favorites” (1954)

Born on March 1st, 1927, Belafonte spent much of his childhood in Jamaica with his grandmother, and studying folk music connected him to that past. It reminded him of the songs of Kingston street vendors as they did their work. To Belafonte, folk music was a populist outlet for a people’s experiences of oppression, cloaking songs of rebellion in the mundanity of daily life. Like other folk musicians of the time, Belafonte saw the power of music for social and political revolution.

Belafonte’s second studio album was released in 1956.

In 1952, just a year after its opening, Belafonte’s restaurant closed, burying him in debt. The next year, he made his debut as a folk singer at the Village Vanguard. His repertoire consisted of a diverse constellation of folk music, including the Jewish celebration song “Hava Nagila,” the traditional African American ballad “John Henry,” and the Calypso melody “Matilda.” Village Vanguard could not contain his star power nor his audience. He moved uptown to the bigger venue, Blue Angel, also owned by Vanguard owner Max Gordon. Soon, he was booking nightclubs and hotels across the country, even performing in Las Vegas during the Rat Pack era, alongside Liberace and Sammy Davis Jr. He even fulfilled his original wish and was cast in movies, including the celebrated Otto Preminger musical Carmen Jones

A detailed ledger from 1951 shows how much he got paid for gigs. From Belafonte’s personal archive at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Photo by James Estrin/The New York Times.

Belafonte would continue to have a connection to the Village, singing and recording at the RCA recording studios at Webster Hall. In 1956, Belafonte released his breakthrough album, Calypso. It was the first album to hit a million units sold by a single artist, and introduced the American public to calypso music. The hit single from the album “Banana Boat Song” (listed as “Day-O” on the Calypso LP) was recorded in Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom. The Jamaican call and response work song is arguably Belafonte’s most famous song. Harry Belafonte would go on to have a long, immensely successful career as a singer, actor and activist. He continues to live in New York City, his home for the entirety of his adult life. In his words, “I think there’s no city quite like New York.”

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