All Time Greatest Hits Vol. 1
Rating: 7 (library disc)
When people ask what I’m listening to these days, my answer is, “Harry Belafonte, believe it or not.” You see, Abe got a complete run of The Muppet Show videos from his grandparents, and the one starring Mr. Belafonte has caught his attention. He’s memorized all the words to “Day-O” and “Turn the World Around,” and even has all of Belafonte’s hand motions down pat. So we checked out a CD from the library, too, and we listen to that every day. It’s a good thing Harry’s got such a terrific sound.
Harry Belafonte made his name as a top calypso performer in the 1950’s, but judging from this record, calypso is just a tag thrown onto whatever Belafonte performed. He effortlessly covers everything from salsa to bluebeat, with pitch-perfect intonation and a pretty good sound considering the vintage of the recordings. The variety of latin rhythms make this a terrific disc for all sorts of dancing.
One of Belafonte’s secret weapons is guitarist Millard Thomas, who brings a fluid fingerpicking style to the proceedings, but the other is his choice of material. Belafonte didn’t write many of these tunes, but he had a great ear for hits. Just try to resist “Jump in the Line” (you may know it from the movie Beetlejuice) or “Mama Look a Boo Boo” (as a parent, I’m not too glad that the hook goes “shut up your mouth” but you can’t fight the melody). Belafonte’s own arrangement of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” has a Dixieland flavor, with one of the swingingest tubas ever, and “Jamaica Farewell” sounds like a precursor to Bob Marley’s reggae ballads, with a sweet melody over a gently syncopated beat.
The clincher is Belafonte’s cover of “Abraham, Martin and John.” While not a jumping tune like most of the rest, it of course mentions Abe’s name in the first and last verses, thus providing endless delight. It even gives us a chance to talk about some great Americans. It would be even better if it were “Abraham, Abraham and Abraham,” though.
I’m not such a big fan of the limp ballads “Scarlet Ribbons” and “Mary’s Boy Child,” but neither is Abe, so we just skip ‘em.
For a disc mainly acquired as a kiddie crowd-pleaser, Harry Belafonte’s All Time Greatest Hits Vol. 1 has sustained appeal for adults who enjoy lively rhythms and good singing. Play it at your next party (birthday or cocktail) and watch the faces light up.
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