The Tonight Show is one of the most powerful televised late night shows of the world and made its big debut with Steve Allen in 1954. It started as a comedy show and later added a little contemporary news gradually growing into one of the most informative shows in America. In 1968, Johnny Carson was The Tonight Show’s host and decided to do something a little differently than any other host before him has done— a guest host. His idea was backed by the executives of the show.
Though Carson was seen as a wonderful host he did not feel comfortable with talking about real world issues such as the civil rights movement and racism. Therefore, he wanted to bring on a guest host that could do so eventually choosing Harry Belafonte. Belafonte initially turned down in fears that he was not the guy for the job. The offer was then negotiated until he was ultimately convinced. Belafonte was able to take control of the guest list as well as performing a song at the end of the show for a week.
Harry is a legend, singer, & iconic movie star who dominated roles with multiple ethnicities and was often viewed as a hero to even white people in those times. He was more than perfect for being the guest host. Segregation was still legal then and we may take it for granted now however, back then this was big.
Harry’s guest list held some of the biggest names in history including: Leon Bibb, Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Paul Newman, Nipsey Russell, and even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. & Robert Kennedy just before their assassinations.
When Harry welcomed Aretha Franklin onto the show she was then at the height of her career. Her voice was not only powerful but, her songs correlated perfectly in the times of the civil rights movement. Later, he then thought of folk music to represent the reality more accurately than any other genre of music. He therefore welcomed American Folk-singer, Leon Bibb to the stage where he performed a song called, “Suzanne” and the audience was blown away. Harry wanted to bring the absolute best of Black America.
A month after his gig and Carson invited him back on the show to review his thoughts to find out the ratings were higher than ever before. The purpose of the show was to bring light to the reality of that time and era since it was never publicized. It was later discussed that after his appearance with Petula Clark they started having issues. People really had a lot of mixed reviews when it came to them showing a little affection with one another. In those times it was definitely seen as a no no.
Unfortunately, most of the shows were re-recorded on the same tape so most of the actual footage is lost. There are only two remaining tapes of footage from the original hosting gig. An Archivist, Phil Grives, happened to record the audio so people are able to get a real feel of what the show was like even now nearly 50 years later.
The legacy of the week of The Tonight Show hosted by Harry Belafonte will forever be imbedded in history because he managed to bring together different minorities talking about the rights and wrongs of the ongoing issues within the walls of America. Harry whom is now 93 years old says he’s been at this game since he was a teenager.
Harry Belafonte was one of the firsts to do it until Arsenio Hall came along in 1989. Late night shows have become increasingly more political but is still to this day primarily more white host than black.
The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show, premiered September 10, on NBCUniversal’s streaming platform Peacock and features never seen before footage is indeed a must watch!