Album Review

Harry Belafonte - The Midnight Special

Harry Belafonte

The Midnight Special

RCA Victor

Release Date: February 23rd, 1962

Words by: Nathan Wood
February 27th, 1962


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It's widely known that Harry Belafonte's The Midnight Special is the album on which Bob Dylan made his professional recording career debut, playing an Earthy, blues harmonica burst on the title track. What's not so widely known, however, is that Dylan found the experience a painstaking nightmare – mainly because of the absolute perfection demanded by Belafonte.

Apparently Belafonte would listen to each track over and over again incessantly until he was confident it was flawless. Dylan thought of this obsessive recording style – "the whole thing was overdone. A real drag". As an occasional musician who has spent some time in demanding and lengthy recording sessions, I can understand Dylan's displeasure with the process. Sometimes if you deliberate over specific parts of a song for too long it distracts your focus from others to the detriment of the overall piece. Every now and then you've just got to be loose and passionate and "go with the flow" in order to get the most out of your recording.

However, passion and beauty can exist in perfection as well, like a master watchmaker who's patience insures the thousands of wheels and cogs inside an exquisite timepiece coordinate in harmony and precision to produce an impeccable machine that will last several life times.

It is that kind of master-tradesman-perfection that Belafonte ingrained into Midnight Special, and that makes this record stand up as strongly today as I imagine it did when it was released from the workshop 50 years ago.

Infusing elements of jazz, big band, gospel and blues, Midnight Special is a completely democratic album, in that each instrument is designated it's own space, time and voice to express itself. The bass lines thump and bounce under the surface, the percussion snaps and taps above your head as ivory piano keys accent and move around the edges, the horns blow with explosive gusto through the guts, while gentle guitar strums and plucks add a warm glowing aura to the overall mix.

And all the while Belafonte's vocal ensures the songs sexily waltz from track to track with confidence and swagger. His gritty tenor adds a rock and roll jolt to the overall rigidness of the instrumentals – like Fonzy banging on the jukebox at Arnold's and shaking up the set of Happy Days.

It's easy to forget, what with modern recording techniques, how good professional singers had to be on record in Belafonte's day and on this album he is pitch perfect, hitting a range of notes with grace and subtlety and without ever straining his instrument, or overshadowing any of the other members of his band.

And despite his unsavoury experience, Dylan's work features on the absolute highlight track on the record. Other songs also worth mentioning are the smokey jazz club number 'Memphis Tennessee,' the sleepy 'Makes A Long Time Man Feel Bad' and the urgent and compelling 'Did You Hear About Jerry,' with its haunting falsetto refrain.

Belafonte's perfection may have been too much for a young rebel like Bob Dylan to handle during their short partnership, but I'm sure it's the kind of discipline he would have the utmost respect for just a few years later. After all it's that quality control that has ensured Dylan's small contribution, his tiny cog in the watch, has been preserved beautifully within this skilfully crafted piece of music all these years later.

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