Harry Belafonte – When Colors Come Together

Harry Belafonte – When Colors Come Together: The Legacy of Harry Belafonte (RCA/Legacy) review

Now, more than ever, his music and message need to be heard

There is truly only one Harry Belafonte.

Singer, actor, political activist; he is a towering figure whose message of equality for all seems more relevant now in these turbulent times than ever before. Legacy Recordings is celebrating the singular artist’s 90th birthday with a brand-new collection called When Colors Come Together: The Legacy of Harry Belafonte (to be released February 24th).

Few young people could pick Belafonte’s music out by name. Yet, the refrain “Day-O” from his “Banana Boat Song” is one of the most-recognizable pieces in the history of recorded music, getting played at sporting and entertainment events worldwide; very few nonagenarians can say they’ve recorded such timeless music. Yet, equally important is Belafonte’s tireless activism for racial harmony. This hope for a peaceful world is reflected in the accompanying booklet, which features quotes from the legendary singer, alongside interviews with children of all races, augmented by images of ways all races can co-exist peacefully.

The artist’s first big break came with 1956’s Calypso. The first album by anyone (of any race) to sell a million copies, it also introduced the world to the music of the Caribbean. In addition to “Banana Boat Song,” the almost-as-famous “Jamaica Farewell,” and “Brown Skin Girl” are culled from that monumental LP. Also from that same time period is the sing-a-long of “Matilda” and the poignant “Scarlett Ribbons (For Her Hair).”

But, to label Belafonte as simply a Calypso singer would be an incredible disservice, and this collection attempts to showcase his ability to take any composition and make it his own. He tackles socially conscious material like Pete Seeger’s “These Three Are On My Mind,” and a touching reading of “Abraham, Martin & John,” where you can hear a tear in Belafonte’s voice when mentioning his fallen friend, Martin Luther King. But, the singer was equally adept at taking pop material and elevating it, as in Don McLean’s “Empty Chairs” or Tom Jones’ “Try to Remember.”

The set gets its name from the leadoff track, a newly-recorded version of his 1957 song “Island in the Sun.” Retitled “When Colors Come Together (Our Island in the Sun),” it features not Belafonte, but a multi-cultural children’s choir, and revamped lyrics of a world where all humans come together in harmony.

But, the biggest reminder from this new collection is that Harry Belafonte was so much more than just a popular singer – he used his status as a launchpad to champion many causes. In an era where “social activism” equates to tweets and Facebook posts, Belafonte reminds us that in order to bring about real change, we have to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.

Sixty years after many of the songs on When Colors Come Together were recorded, we’re still dealing with racial discord, yet Harry Belafonte’s music gives us hope for a brighter future. –Tony Peters