BOOTLEG FILES 741: “Harry & Lena” (1970 television special starring Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Problems in clearing music rights.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely at this time.
If you were watching television variety shows and specials from the 1950s through the 1970s, it was nearly impossible not to see either Harry Belafonte or Lena Horne turn up in a guest starring role. The charismatic and versatile Belafonte would offer anything from calypso music to folk tunes to protest songs reflecting the ongoing turmoil of the times, while the regal Horne provided incomparable beauty and a distinctive styling of the Great American Songbook.
Despite their popular appeal, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that Belafonte and Horne had the chance to headline their own television offerings – Belafonte scored a weeklong guest hosting of “The Tonight Show” in 1968 while Horne hosted two BBC specials before getting her own U.S. special in 1969. In 1970, ABC offered the performers the opportunity to appear together for a one-hour production, with Faberge agreeing to serve as the commercial sponsor.
“Harry & Lena” was different from most of the television specials of the era because it avoided the delightful kitsch that permeated this genre. There were no cheesy dance numbers, no “special guest stars” who were often anything but special, and no lapses into bad comedy sketches or awkward interpretations of rock music. It was just Belafonte and Horne performing with a theater-in-the-round setting on a minimalist set for an audience that seemed appreciative if a tad too polite. (Belafonte would acknowledge the audience members were invited for the show.)
“Harry & Lena” gets off to a good start with the pair doing a jazzy-bluesy riff on Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” which was at the top of the charts in early 1970. After a brief bit of small-talk, Belafonte takes a solo turn with Jerry Jeff Walker’s “My Old Man,” but the number is strangely overproduced (there is no on-screen band in this show) and his interpretation seems flat. A guitarist comes on-camera to accompany Horne in her interpretation of the Beatles’ “In My Life,” and she gives the song a melancholy tinge, but she then things go awry with a happy-go-lucky “It’s Always Something Else” – as with the Belafonte solo that preceded her, the arrangements are overdone and fail to properly support Horne’s vocalizing.
The special continues along this pattern, with Belafonte and Horne taking turns to offer solo numbers of uneven value. Horne tends to come off better with a haunting take on Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Brown Baby,” but Belafonte never gets a handle on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.” When they finally duet, the magic one expects from this pair comes alive – their playful spin on Randy Newman’s “Love Story (You and Me)” turns on the charm full force, while their take on the folk standard “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (later popularized by Roberta Flack) and Joe South’s “Don’t It Make You Wanna Go Home” reaffirms their chemistry as a duo. But rather than conclude the special on those winning numbers, the production opted to have Belafonte solo on “Abraham, Martin and John” – although it is a heartfelt number, the sequence ends the show on a too-somber note and with Horne out of the spotlight.
For today’s viewers, much of the fun in the original “Harry & Lena” broadcast involves the Faberge commercials. Mickey Mantle and Wilt Chamberlain have their own spots, and a young then-unknown Cybill Shepherd stars in another commercial. The last commercial is an anti-pollution public service spot sponsored by Faberge and featuring a Belafonte narration urging viewers to clean up the world while shots of dead birds and rats on garbage cans fill the screen.
Also, today’s viewers might be surprised to see that the show was written by Andy Rooney – yes, that grouchy old “60 Minutes” commentator. Years later, Rooney would comment that he liked Belafonte more than Horne. Go figure.
“Harry & Lena” aired on ABC on March 22, 1970, and received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Single Program – Variety or Musical. Faberge released a soundtrack album that was sold through mail order only. To date, however, the production has never been released in a commercial home entertainment format. Obviously, clearing the music rights to the songs in the show is too cost-prohibitive.
The complete “Harry & Lena” can be found in an unauthorized and none-too-pristine version on YouTube, with the Faberge commercials intact. Fans of Belafonte and Horne might be able to overlook the show’s wobblier moments and enjoy this rarely-revived showcase.
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