"Belafonte Sings the Blues" at 45rpm From IMPEX
Belafonte, born in Harlem of Jamaican and Martiniquan extraction, did spend eight of his childhood years in Jamaica before returning to New York City to attend high school. He was involved in the theater before embarking upon a singing career. At his first public appearance as a singer he was backed by Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis! Not bad!
He went on to become a fairly successful pop singer but found it less than satisfying so for a short spell he became a restauranteur before returning to singing and eventually garnering international acclaim for his reworking of the folk idiom.
Nonetheless, while the erudite, urbane Belafonte could "pass" as a calypso pop singer, the blues would seem to require a more roughly edged backdrop that the creamy-voiced singer didn't possess. Still, Belafonte was a presenter and advocate of "world music" in all of its folk and blues variations well before the term was invented. And, according to Nat Hentoff's liner notes, he was a fan of many blues greats.
This album is saved from inauthenticity by not really being a blues album. Rather it's an album of songs that exude a "bluesy" feel, with Belafonte backed mostly by small combos of unidentified New York and Los Angeles studio musicians on bass, drums and piano, occasionally augmented tastefully by reeds, brass and guitar. Oh, and it's also saved by Belafonte's very believable performances that ring true and never sound forced or artificial.
The astute A&R work, apparently much of it by Belafonte, includes three Ray Charles songs: "A Fool For You," "Hallelujah I Love Her So" and "Mary Ann" (Ray was all of 28 in 1958 when this album was recorded), Billie Holiday's "God Bless' the Child" and Lowell Fulson's "Sinner's Prayer." It even has Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's "One for my Baby."
One of the standouts for me is Charles Calhoun's "Losing Hand" featuring a slashing guitar on the right channel and a baritone sax on the left. Harry gets down. It's too bad we don't know the identity of these players!
Belafonte's voice has been superbly recorded on both coasts and placed deservedly well out front in the mix. All of the instruments are well-recorded and spread naturally across the very wide soundstage. As for which were New York recordings (led by Allen Greene and Bob Corman) and which originated in Hollywood (with Dennis Farnon), the only clue is (might be?) the distinctive RCA Hollywood echo chamber on some tracks later heard on Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow and The Rolling Stones' Aftermath. The New York tracks are drier and when there is added echo it is less expansive and has a faster decay time. Or I'm just hallucinating!
There's nothing wrong with Classic's 33 1/3 reissue mastered by Bernie Grundman, or of course with the original, which is warmer, darker and more "tubey" but not as highly resolved or as dynamic and has a rolled-off top end, but this double 45 from Impex produces more detail, particularly on top and greater transparency than either the Classic or the original I have here and soundstage depth is notably superior.
Working from what I suspect is a copy of the original forty four year old tape, Kevin Gray has produced the most open, transparent and detailed version yet. Impex's deluxe gatefold packaging adds to the pleasure.
Yes, if given a choice of blues albums by Memphis Slim or Harry Belafonte I'd pick Slim every time (as probably would Harry himself!) but this album remains incredibly popular and well-respected for good reason aside from the spectacularly vidid sound.
It's a shame we don't know who engineered in New York (Bob Simpson?) or Hollywood (Al Schmitt?) nor do we know who played but you can be sure they were the cream of the New York and California studio cats and probably include some very familiar names. So Harry, if while trolling the Internet one evening (when the sun went down) and you found this review, please let us know!