Starting in 1956, Billboard began tracking album sales in addition to single recordings. As I have previously noted, one of the nets I cast to ensure a wide diversity and chronological sampling of the music of my lifetime was to include the number one selling album for each year. Kicking off this data set is the album “Calypso” by Harry Belafonte.
As one might hope, this island trade wind kicks off with the infamous “Banana Boat (Day-O)”. Although not my proudest moment, I can’t help but think of the ridiculous scene in the movie “Beetlejuice”. With this being the most instantly recognizable song on the album, I was surprised to hear a nearly identical version later in the album, “Star-O”. Following the opening hit single is “Jamaica Farewell”, a simple and beautiful tropical ballad. The rest of the album contains a mix of up-tempo and soft sounds, a perfect listen when you are on the water, or at least sailing away in your mind. Another track that really caught my ear was “Come Back Liza”, which has a series of alluring harmonies, I believe with Harry’s voice double-tracked. The instrumentation is simple and safely flowing in the background, really allowing his accented voice to shine through.
I have to confess, if you would have asked me who the #1 selling artist was in 1956, I probably would not have had Harry Belafonte in my Top 5. However, as I reflected on that, it makes me happy that even then, the musical branches of the world were spreading beyond the roots of blues, jazz, and country to embrace new sounds and different artists. Beyond this highly successful commercial success, Belafonte has not only led a life of musical accomplishment, he has been a passionate and highly influential voice in the civil rights movement. His association with Dr. Martin Luther King made him a visible figure during the confrontational 1960s, and he has continued to fight worldwide against apartheid and other civil injustices. At 93 years of age, Harry Belafonte is the first artist on my list still with us today. Hopefully somewhere he is embracing a warm breeze at his back as he sails onward a few knots ahead of the rest of us.