THE RECORD PROFESSOR PART 14
TWO MEN FROM NEW YORK CITY
What in the world can these two artists possibly have in common?
Harry Belafonte is an old man now, but still ready for a fight. Just read his new book, "A Song," which chronicles his struggle throughout the Civil Rights movement, his creation of the "We Are the World" crusade to feed starving people in Africa (no, it wasn't started by Michael Jackson or Lionel Richie, although they wrote the blockbuster single of the same name), and his movie roles back when a leading man who happened to be black was practically non-existent in Hollywood.
But it's his music legacy that most interests me. Right in the middle of the Elvis explosion of 1956 was a quiet, almost acapella record which, like Presley's recordings, was issued on the RCA Victor label: Jamaica Farewell, a beautiful tune from the islands that, for a time, defined Belafonte's career as the "king of Calypso," something he never claimed or even much liked. He and Elvis traded positions at the top of the Billboard music charts for the final six months of 1956, and finally met each other when Elvis came backstage at one of Harry's Las Vegas concerts that year.
Paul Evans hasn't had quite the same level of success as Belafonte (and certainly not Elvis), but--for a time--his songs were right up there in the Top 10 along with both of them. He came dangerously close to being labeled a novelty act, which could have been the kiss of death, as it was for the careers of most artists who recorded humorous songs that had a special "hook." Paul's first hit kind of fell into that category, although he was anything but a One Hit Wonder. That song was Happy Go Lucky Me, which features Evans actually laughing during the record. That little touch probably would have killed anyone else's career, but Paul went on to have success with other songs, too, like Seven Little Girls (Sittin' in the Back Seat), and The Brigade of Broken Hearts. I actually emailed Paul through his website about that last song, which is one of my favorite records, issued in the summer of 1960. He told me it wasn't that successful, and sort of stopped his career momentum at that point. But he was far from done with show business.
Belafonte stopped making hit records long ago, but his albums still sell extremely well, complete with the original-cover artwork on front of the CD re-issues. In his book, he tells a story about a fight he had with RCA Victor about the front cover of his "Calypso" album. The label wanted him to pose with some bananas on top of his head, as if he were Carmen Miranda. What an insulting racial stereotype, he told the label, which gave in and eventually approved the cover you see above. His songs were much more than just island music, even though "Day-O" is what you hear over the public address system if you attend a certain professional baseball game in New York.
Which is what these two artists, I guess, have in common: New York City, where they both began their careers. As I mentioned, Evans' success actually went into higher gear after The Brigade of Broken Hearts tanked. He spent more time on songwriting, penning the number one smash, Roses Are Red, for Bobby Vinton, and I Gotta Know for Elvis Presley. That latter song happened to be the flip side of Are You Lonesome Tonight? so those royalty checks kept on coming and coming.
We've talked about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before, so let me suggest these two names as great additions. While many people might be unfamiliar with their work, the music industry wouldn't be what it is today without them.
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