Harry Belafonte, 2017
acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 in
“His was the easiest portrait I’ve ever painted,” Joan says. “He’s so frigging handsome. His face is so smooth. It’s like a setup.” Belafonte was “The King of Calypso” in the 1950s and ’60s, famous for his “Banana Boat Song” with its signature, “Day-O.” She first heard his records when she was 16, in high school, when the family was living in Redlands, California, while her father taught physics at the university there.
“He was the first singer I heard in folk music, before Pete Seeger and Odetta,” she says. “I couldn’t know at that early age that we would end up marching with Dr. King and that he would become a close friend of mom’s.” Joan’s mother, often referred to as Joan Sr. had a special place in her heart for Belafonte, an early supporter of Dr. King’s and one of his confidantes. She swooned whenever she was around him and kept his signed picture beside her bed.
But he was an even closer friend of Joan’s. When he met her son, Gabe, who was still in his teens, he shook Gabe’s hand and said, “If I’d played my cards right, you’d be MY son.”
“We had a little thing,” Joan admits. “I always just took it as a compliment that it came to his mind.”