Rock ‘n’ Roll King vs Calypso King (1956-1957)
By Ger Rijff / Bob Pakes
When HARRY BELAFONTE hit it big with such hits as Island In The Sun, Banana Boat Song, and especially his million selling album Calypso, he became RCA Victor’s best selling act. Harry Belafonte, born in 1927, was crowned CALYPSO KING. Around the time America went Calypso mad, another music genre quickly grew out of proportion: Rock ‘n’ Roll, and ELVIS PRESLEY, also under contract at RCA, became known as the KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. The media of course, were responsible for crowning both Elvis and Belafonte ‘Kings’ of their respective genres.
In this topic we’ll take a look at the impact of Harry Belafonte and his Calypso music on Elvis’ popularity during his breakthrough years of 1956 and 1957.
For a year, or even less, the almighty media had hoped the Calypso Dance would wipe the floor with the nasty Rock ‘n’ Roll craze. Of course it didn’t. Belafonte was loved for the most part by adults while Hep Cats couldn’t be bothered with the Caribbean Calypso sounds favoured by their parents.
The magazine publication from the first half of 1957 simply titled 16, with both Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte on the cover, is undoubtly one of the rarest Teen mags ever published.
Some magazine editors smelled money and teamed the then very popular Belafonte up with Elvis in two of their Teen titles. Both of these magazines were published by the same house that had previously done ELVIS AND JIMMY and ELVIS SPEAKS in 1956.
Combining Elvis and Belafonte turned out to be a big failure since Teen mags were bought mainly by young white girls and Harry Belafonte didn’t exactly fit their taste. Many copies of both titles went back unsold to the publishing company in New York, and because sales were so poor back then, very few copies of both titles have survived into this day and age.
As if one battle that never really was wasn’t enough, one-hit-wonder Tommy Sands got thrown into the ring as well. According to the publishers, Tommy was ready to take on (not just one but) both leading artists in their respective genres. What???
Here we have some very interesting photos of Elvis visiting POPLAR TUNES in Memphis, in early 1957.
By looking at these pictures one can tell how popular Harry Belafonte actually was: his face/records appear in nearly all of the photos taken that day at Poplar, even though of course Elvis was Memphis’ local hero.
PHOTO TO THE LEFT:
Elvis seems to be looking at one (of three) of Belafonte’s albums on the top shelf.
Elvis’ own two LP’s can be seen to the right of the photo.
PHOTO TO THE RIGHT:
Apart from the cool Elvis director’s chair we can spot a huge stock of Belafonte 45’s that are brought to the attention by the BELAFONTE 89¢ record-divider.
There is no Belafonte in this lucky fan’s photo, but to the right we can spot Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips while we see Elvis’ girlfriend Barbara Hearn to the left.
In these two images Elvis is in the company of Dewey Phillips and record shop owner Joe Cuoghi. In front of these gentlemen we see an RCA promo display for An Evening With Belafonte.
The photo to the right is quite wellknown (though it is usually heavily cropped with the Belafonte display being photoshopped out of the image). But the photo to the left has very rarely been seen.
Any vintage record covers that feature both Presley and Belafonte? Well, yes! The Rock King and the Calypso King have been brought together by RCA ITALY on two (nowadays very rare) Various Artists albums:
COCKTAIL DI SUCCESSI N. 5
(1957 / A10V 0109)
Five RCA recording stars have been collected on this album, with two songs by each artist.
In JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957), many RCA recording stars pop up on the posters on the wall of the studio while Vince is going through Treat Me Nice and Don’t Leave Me Now.
Next to Pery Como, Eddie Fisher, Lena Horne and Dinah Shore we (of course!) see Harry Belafonte’s face on one of the most prominent spots on the wall.
During the close-up shots of Treat Me Nice (taken with a different set-up) a 2nd image of Belafonte (actually the cover of An Evening With Belafonte) can be seen on the wall behind Elvis.
Here we have three RCA VICTOR CATALOGS that all carry an album by Elvis as well as Belafonte on the cover.
The catalog below to the left is from January 1957.
The one next to that is from August 1957.
And the catalog to the right is from October 1959.
Okay. So who was ‘King Of The Charts’?
Was it Elvis, or Harry?
Let’s take a look at the statistics, as supplied by BILLBOARD Magazine!
March 24, 1956 | ‘Belafonte’
April 28, 1956 | ‘Belafonte’
BELAFONTE (Harry’s second LP) went to Nr. 1 on March 24.
It remained Nr. 1 for six weeks.
ELVIS PRESLEY (Elvis’ first LP) had moved to the Nr. 2 position by April 28.
One week later ELVIS PRESLEY will take over the Nr. 1 spot from BELAFONTE. (see next entry)
ELVIS PRESLEY remained Nr. 1 for ten weeks.
May 5, 1956 | ‘Elvis Presley’
September 8, 1956 | ‘Calypso’
October 20, 1956 | ‘Calypso’
CALYPSO (Harry’s third LP) went to Nr. 1 on September 8.
The album remained in the Nr. 1 spot for four weeks.
After losing the topspot for a total of two weeks (to the soundtracks of The King And I and The Eddy Duchin Story), CALYPSO regained the Nr. 1 position for another seven weeks on october 20.
December 1, 1956 | ‘Calypso’
By December, CALYPSO had become the biggest selling album of the year, and it was also the first ever LP in history to sell over one million copies.
ELVIS (Elvis’ second LP) had moved to the Nr. 2 position on December 1. One week later ELVIS will take over the Nr. 1 spot from CALYPSO (see next entry).
ELVIS remained Nr. 1 for five weeks.
December 8, 1956 | ‘Elvis’
January 12, 1957 | ‘Calypso’
So, twice in a row Elvis Presley was responsible for taking over the Nr. 1 position from Harry Belafonte. But it turned out that the success of CALYPSO was far from over, in fact, it had only just begun!
On January 12 CALYPSO moved ELVIS back to the Nr. 2 position, regaining the top spot for a third time, and this time the album remained in the Nr. 1 position for another 20 weeks.
May 20, 1957 | ‘Calypso’
CALYPSO stayed on top of the Billboard Album chart until May 20.
The LP had been the Nr. 1 album in the USA for an incredible total of 31 weeks.
In the same week, AN EVENING WITH BELAFONTE (Harry’s fourth LP), released while Calypso was still in the Nr. 1 position, dropped two places from 3 to 5.
Harry Belafonte had enjoyed a tremendous run on the charts with his two consecutive Nr. 1 hit albums, but he would not score a Nr. 1 album again during the course of his career.
And this is really where ‘the battle’ for the Top Spot between Rock ‘n’ Roll (Presley) and Calypso (Belafonte) ended.
What’s the verdict?
Who was the King Of The Charts?
Before we come to a conclusion, let’s take the album releases of 1957 into account that did not battle it out on the charts, but that have played a significant role nonetheless during the Calypso and Rock ‘n’ Roll crazes when it comes to album sales and chart listings.
‘An Evening With Belafonte’
This LP would not be able to equal the succes of its two predecessors, even though it eventually reached the Nr. 2 position.
‘Belafonte Sings Of The Caribbean’
Harry’s fifth album went to Nr. 3 on the Billboard chart.
Elvis’ third album would also become his third Nr. 1.
‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’
Album number four was Elvis’ fourth consecutive Nr. 1.
Elvis’ Christmas Album spent 4 weeks in the top spot (2 of which were in 1958) and it would be Elvis’ last Nr. 1 album until December 1960 (when G.I. Blues reached the top of the chart.)
During 1956 and 1957, Elvis and Harry both released 4 albums.
Two of Harry’s albums went to Nr. 1, spending a total of 37 WEEKS (6 + 31) in the top spot.
All four of Elvis’ albums reached the top of the chart but they ‘only’ totaled 27 WEEKS (5 + 10 + 10 + 2) in the Nr. 1 spot.
Next to his Nr. 1 albums, Elvis had also enjoyed many Nr. 1 singles in 1956 and 1957, while Harry had never made it to Nr. 1 with any of the 7″ formats.
That said, Harry’s audience (mature America) was not the single buying public, while Elvis’ target audience (teenage USA) consisted mainly of single buying teens.
On the other hand, Harry spent a recordbreaking total of 99 weeks on the Album chart with CALYPSO.
Elvis would not be able to break this record until 5 years later when G.I. Blues left the chart after 111 weeks.
And the winner is …
For having spent 64 weeks (out of 104) in the Nr. 1 position with the 2 biggest sellers in the music business in 1956 and 1957!
Of course there never was a ‘battle’ in the first place.
Rock ‘n’ Roll and Calypso co-existed peacefully together since both genres targetted very different audiences.