Still Belafonte At Carnegie Hall   After All These Years?

First released in "Living Stereo" way back in 1959, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall continues to captivate listeners, both audiophile and non. The question that needs asking is: Were this not such an astonishing recording, would it still hold interest?.

Listening yet again to yet another vinyl reissue of this 55 year old recording and performance I have to conclude "yes", but the "you are (still) there" recording doesn't hurt!

Stereo was still a novelty in 1959 and other than the limited number of "hi-fi nuts" most mainstream listeners who bought into the new medium did so with systems that featured a big mono-era console augmented with a 'satellite' second channel or a portable type player also with a smaller 'satellite' speaker.

Even on these terribly unbalanced systems, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall made obvious the new medium's potential for transporting listeners to the concert hall. I remember my next door neighbor getting an RCA stereo console back in 1959. It was a blonde wood floor stander with a much smaller secondary speaker.

First my neighbor played for this kid next door a demo record featuring screaming children in an indoor swimming pool. For the first time in my life I experienced from a record a 3 dimensional reverberant space. It was magical! Then the neighbor played Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. Immediately I began lobbying my parents for a stereo to replace our monophonic Columbia "360 Sound" console.

It took about a year. We ended up with a Bogen RP-60 receiver, a Garrard Type A turntable with Shure M3D cartridge and a pair of 12" Jensen Unax speakers stuffed into two, way too small wooden boxes from Cantor the Cabinet King on Cortlandt Street that weren't sealed or vented. There was just a hole cut out directly behind the magnet assembly. There was no bass, but what was there was STEREO.

The first record we bought? Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. Even though I listened almost exclusively to rock'n'roll I made time for Harry and listened to that record over and over so amazing was the sound. So amazing still is the sound but over many years of listening, so is the performance. So is the whole concert.

Belafonte was/is considered anything but "authentic". Among the cognoscenti he's thought of more as an entertainer than as a serious artist but who creates these classifications and these many years later, who cares about such distinctions? Bob Dylan is both a serious artist and an entertainer. Belafonte brought "world" music to the masses, starting with Calypso. His handsome, "clean cut" looks, not to mention his erudition and proper diction made him "acceptable" to a touchy white racist culture (in retrospect even the non-racists were, well, racist in their involuntary condescension).

Today at age 87 he is more politically active than ever and quite outspoken. Back then, after serving in the Navy in World War II, the New York native began club singing to pay for acting lessons.

For his first public performance he was backed by Charlie Parker's combo that included Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis. Holy shit! He didn't sing "The Banana Boat Song" then but his interest in folk music grew and you know the rest, though did you know that his signature song "Matilda" was recorded in 1953?

By the time these two benefit concerts were performed on April 19th and 20th 1959, Belafonte had amassed a catalog of hits familiar to a wide swath of Americans and he had combined his singing and acting skills to create a masterful stage persona.

The performances and the audience's reaction those two evenings were magical. The magic was locked into the magnetic recording tape and hearing it today, even after hearing it for decades, it remains a singular experience from which many listeners never tire. I am one of those. Even the arrangements that don't hold up well to time like "Cotton Fields", which had been reworked and sanitized to remove every trace of bitterness, remain fascinating as time capsules—especially side 4's nightclub version of "Matilda".

Over the years the reproduction of the original records kept improving and with each improvement the experience drew closer to "being there." Over the years the mastering and pressing quality improved as well. One can argue that originals are the best but not here. No way! Unlike the original pressings mastered from 2 track mix downs from the 3 track original tape, Classic Records' reissue on both 33 1/3 and single-sided 45rpm records and this new mastering are sourced directly from the 3 track tape.

If you already own the Classic version I'm not suggesting you need to buy this yet again. However, while I didn't think there was more to get from the tape than what Bernie Grundman got for Classic Records, I think Ryan K. Smith and the Sterling team have done just that, showcased by the utter black QRP backgrounds.

The transparency, three-dimensionality, tonal and textural purity and especially the riveting image specificity, while always obvious on every version from the beginning, have never been this pronounced—particularly the see-through transparency. Even the cover art graphics have been stepped up a few notches.

The key to sonic perfection is correctly setting the volume. Too loud and it will sound too bright and the reverb behind Belafonte's voice will be obscured. But set correctly, it all locks into place, tonally and spatially.

So yes, had this been a crappy recording, the fascination with it among lovers of great sounding recordings might not be as widespread or intense, but it is among the greatest, if not the greatest live concert recordings ever made and Belafonte's and the orchestra's performances make it well-worth revisiting.

Devil Doc's picture

RCA Living Stereo recordings were the pinnacle of the recording art. It never, ever got any better. I guess I'll just be happy that I found one years ago in the local NPR radio station fire sale during the advent of the dreaded CD.


Michael T's picture

There appears to be a trend (which I have confirmed with my own purchases first hand) that titles mastered at either Sterling or Cohearant which were previously issued mastered by Bernie Grundman for Classic Records have significant improvements. Bernie is one of the top mastering engineers in the world. His Lyn Stanley cut is superb reference quality work. What gives? Have the mastering chains improved? Or was Bernie being told by someone else (i.e. Mike Hobson) how to master/eq titles issued by Classic Records?

Michael Fremer's picture
At some point well after Bernie Grundman began cutting lacquers for Classic Records (among others), he updated his chain, greatly improving the sonics (just as we all over time improve our playback gear). The early Classic "Living Stereo"s and Blue Notes cut by Bernie were not great sounding IMO, but later ones were. Likewise, if you compare some of Kevin Gray's cuts at AcousTech with what he's doing now at his Cohearent facility, which has all new electronics and a complete re-cabling the sonic improvements are dramatic. Compare for instance the Kenny Burrell "Midnight Blue" he cut at 45 for Analogue Productions some years ago with the recent Music Matters one at 33 1/3 cut at Cohearent. The improvements are easily audible, even at the slower speed. Likewise, Sterling Sound has improved its cutting chain in response to the uptick in business and whatever he's doing, young Ryan K. Smith is proving to be among the most talented cutting engineers out there. It would be a really interesting project to have the same tape cut at Grundman's by Bernie and/or Chris Bellman, and at Sterling and at Cohearent and at Masterdisk by Alex DeTurk for that matter and Paul Stubblebine and I could go on! It would be interesting but who's going to pay for it and who's going to buy a 10 disc set of the same music!
Superfuzz's picture

Masterdisk has recently relocated, and many of their main engineers (including vinyl cutter Alex DeTurk) were let go... I think now Scott Hull does the vinyl cutting.

Michael Fremer's picture
Real estate in NYC is through the roof. Hull had built something great there but clearly it was too big for its own good. It seems like everyone who has moved on has found a new mastering home.
Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...hearing this on friends' parents' stereos when I was a kid. And then several years ago, I read about it on a site many of you know, whose writer is famous for controversial opinions. He listed it as one of the greatest recordings ever. So I kept an eye out while thrift store hunting. First I got the mono. What a revelation. Although Belafonte's not my thing, I couldn't deny the strength of his performance and the recording, despite the terrible sibilance on his mike. And then I got a mint shaded dog stereo. About as close to a time machine as I've ever experienced. Just proves if you keep and open mind, prepare to be amazed.

Michael Fremer's picture
It's an amazing document on many levels: the musicianship within the orchestra and small combos is impressive and the recording, produced under very difficult conditions as Belafonte bounced between small combos and large groups with string, is consistently astonishing. But mostly what makes the record amazing is Belafonte's performance. Time machine is right: few of the people involved are alive today including most of the appreciative audience. Yet there they are—there all of them are enjoying those two evenings as if it was happening directly before you. That's the magic of recorded sound that in terms of verisimilitude no movie can match!
Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...Anthony Hopkins in an interview say that as he got older he "acted" less. He projected more of a blank slate for the audience to fill in. (His performance in "Silence of the Lambs" is a fine example thereof.) Perhaps that's why sound-only recordings sometimes seem a more "real" than a film. You, the listener, get to fill in your own version of what happened. I often find videos of concert performances distracting and less satisfying than just a sound recording. Now, mind you, as a result the sound recording and reproduction must be of high quality to enhance the illusion.

Jim Tavegia's picture

Much of this credit goes to Al Schmitt. Without great tracking you have nothing.

Paul Boudreau's picture

It's time I listen to this again. My copy is a black-label RCA cutout which I imagine is a later copy (LSO-6006). Also a gatefold with both LPs in the second/bottom/right side, which is a little different.

Being a bit of a weirdo, I'd like to hear this!

"First my neighbor played...a demo record featuring screaming children in an indoor swimming pool."

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...I just watched a TED Talk about leadership,

wherein the speaker says we naturally follow leaders who give us more than they take. Perhaps that's why recordings such as this endure. The performance is so generous, we love the performer in return. (I doubt performers whose attitude is, "I'm the greatest, give me the $", will last as long a Belafonte.) Another example would be Judy Garland.

samman's picture

This record allows us to time travel. When I first heard this record about 15 years ago, I was floored. Mind you, the music was far from what I listened to at the time. It didn't matter. My God, I was in the hall. I have the Classic 33.3 pressing, and I experience chills when I play this. I'm sure the new pressing is great, as well as cheaper than finding a Classic pressing.

Drtrey3's picture

and my 11 year old kids enjoy them too! Harry was a fine singer and a wonderful performer! He also picked good acts to join him. And yes, the recording is killer, but my kids enjoy the tunes.


J. Carter's picture

On a whim I bought this at a thrift shop for a buck. I have been searching out shaded dog Living Stereo LPs for about a year and a half now and I found this and figured I would try it out. I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet but now I need to get how and clean it up and listen to it after reading this.

atomlow's picture

I like coming to AnalogPlanet and finding recordings to track down that I'd never really think about buying. I'm listening to it now and I do like it. The only albums I've ever "scored" at goodwill's are Belafontesque records. I was going to get rid of my goodwill copy of Belafonte Sings The Blues but I always throw a record on before I get rid of it. I thought it was good enough to keep. I must be getting older too because when I listen to these old records and they say gay I don't snicker any longer. It sucks getting old. I hope everyone has a gay day.

Michael Fremer's picture
Bob Dylan admitted in his book to liking The Kingston Trio so anything goes, including a Gay Day. But just for one day.
Mendo's picture

This was definitely one of those records that made me realize the vortex that Mikey sucked me into was vast and unending. In the early 90s, when I was in college, this was not what I was into. But...reluctantly after reading Mikey's very early "Analog Corner" columns about hemp encrusted Beatles records sounding better than CD, I thought I would give it a shot. Maybe these audio tweakers aren't all crusty Luddites. While home on break I grabbed this from my parents collection just to check it out. I owned a few LPs at the time for my newly purchased table. Now I have many, many thousands...Fremer you owe me!

jarroyoeq's picture

They were many recordings from RCA, London (ffrr), Columbia, that from the 50's and to date seems to be best, BUT ..., there are some records (a few) that have "something" ... I have a Rubinstein Rachmaninov's Rapsody on Paganini from RCA 1960. Of course the disc is scratched and all of that but I don't understand why it doesn't matter when I listen it. The recording is so good, so pleasing ... the only thing I could only try to put in words is a "dynamical freedom" or "dynamical freshness" !?. Normally the noise is a factor that can degrade a listening experience at any given moment, even with those good oldies but, not with this one. Can you understand me?

Noah985's picture

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bongo-hifi's picture

I understand that original pressings were mastered from two track mixdowns of the original 3 track master.
Speakers Corner re-issued this title and cut the lacquers using the original two track mixdown which they tell me was in perfect condition.
How could Classic or Analogue Productions cut a lacquer from a three track tape? Surely they would have to make their own 2 track mixdown to cut from? If so how can the Classic or AP be any better and would they also not actually be considered a remix? As Speakers Corner used the original mixdown would their re-issue not sound more faithful to the original pressing?
It would be interesting to hear from anyone who has heard the Speakers Corner and their opinions on how it sounds