(April 29, 2023).  This article will take you to a time when two artists from completely different walks of life dominated the musical landscape like no others.

I’m not referring to the present day where Taylor Swift and Drake either break or extend chart records with every new project they release.

No, I’m going back nearly 70 years to the beginning of the rock-and-roll era when two male superstars—one from Harlem, New York, the other from Tupelo, Mississippi; one Black, one White—were battling each other for pop chart supremacy, with only movie soundtrack albums taking up No. 1 space when the two men weren’t there.

In one corner representing the North, you had Harry Belafonte, the singing and acting superstar who passed away just this week at age 96 from congestive heart failure.  He specialized in calypso music, a style rooted in his mother’s native Jamaica with pop-folk influences.

In the other, representing the Deep South, you had the red-hot Elvis Presley who was as known for his pelvic gyrations as he was for his soulful crooning.  His music was in the style of the rhythm and blues, country, gospel and early rock-and-roll he was exposed to in his native Mississippi. 

One would become the King of Calypso, a Black singer who, ironically, had more success with pop audiences than he did R&B ones.  

The other was crowned the King of Rock and Roll, a white musician who topped both the pop and the soul charts with ease in the 1950s and early ’60s.

Where their worlds collided—besides both recording for the same label, RCA Victor—was on the album charts.

In March 1956, Billboard Magazine inaugurated its weekly best-selling popular albums list, which has since evolved to what is known today as the Billboard 200.

The very first No. 1 album on that 1956 list (dated March 24) was Belafonte, the self-titled second LP by the Jamaican-American singer.  Belafonte held down the top spot for six weeks before being replaced by Elvis Presley’s first album, which was also self-titled.

Elvis Presley, the man and the album

Elvis Presley, the album, topped the chart dated May 5, 1956, and remained there for ten consecutive weeks.  The album that took him down was the My Fair Lady soundtrack by the Original Broadway Cast.

After that album reigned, the artist who replaced it at the top was once again Harry Belafonte, whose new LP Calypso rose to the top for four weeks that September before yielding to two No. 1 soundtracks: The King and I (no , this album didn’t feature either of our two kings), and The Eddy Duchin Story.  

Those albums spent one week each at the top in October before turning the top spot back over to Belafonte’s Calypso, which spent an additional seven weeks at the top.

Then, in a chart coincidence that only trivial geeks like yours truly could appreciate, Calypso relinquished the No. 1 spot to, who else, Elvis Presley, whose second album, simply titled Elvis, was crowned on December 8 and would remain at the top for the next five weeks. 

This meant that the only No. 1 albums in 1956 were the two LPs by Belafonte, the two collections by Presley, and a handful of soundtrack albums by various other artists.

And if you think this two-man domination ended in 1956, think again. 

After Elvis spent the first week of 1957 at the top, it was again displaced by Belafonte’s Calypso, which in an unprecedented turn would spend the next 19 weeks (!) at the top—from Jan. 12 – May 20, which brought its No. 1 total to 30 frames.

It was after that record-breaking run that the charts finally got a respite from the Belafonte/Presley monopoly.

For eight weeks beginning May 27, the only other artist at the time who could have pulled this off dethroned the two kings—temporarily when his Love Is The Thing album took over the No. 1 spot.

That artist was yet another king: the late superstar crooner Nat “King” Cole.

But Cole’s intervention was only temporary, because after his run was completed in mid-July, the soundtrack to the film Around The World In 80 Days took over for a week.  

And then it was right back to the Elvis and Harry show (and more soundtracks) to finish the year.

Related: See this djrobblog tribute to the late Harry Belafonte, iconic entertainer and activist

First, Elvis knocked out Around The World with his own film soundtrack album, Loving You, which reigned for three weeks beginning with the chart dated July 29.

Then, after three months away, Harry’s Calypso came back for a 31st and final week at the top (chart dated August 19).

This album spent 31 total weeks at No. 1 in 1956-57

With turnabout apparently being fair play between these two chart titans, Presley’s Loving You returned the favor and knocked Calypso from the top the following week, where it would remain for the next six frames before being displaced by the album it had earlier supplanted, Around The World In 80 Days.

That soundtrack yo-yo’d at the top of the list with the My Fair Lady soundtrack, which, as noted above, had already been No. 1 the previous year.

Then, to put a capper on the year, Presley returned with his fourth No. 1 album, Elvis’ Christmas Album, which ruled for the final three weeks of December 1957.

That holiday-themed LP would spend one more week at No. 1 in 1958, but that would be the only representation of either Presley or Belafonte at the top of the charts that year.  

Soundtrack LPs, including My Fair Lady again, continued to dominate in 1958, but this time they were interspersed with albums by other singers like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Ricky Nelson, The Kingston Trio, and musicians Van Cliburn and Mitch Miller—in other words, a more normal looking chart year where more than two or three artists got a piece of the No. 1 pie.

But 1956-57 clearly belonged to the two titans—one of Calypso, the other of Rock-and-Roll—plus a third man named “King,” all of whose dethronings came only at the hands of soundtrack albums that were jockeying for position at the time.

The end reward?

Calypso, which included the big hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” would go on to become the first album ever to sell a million copies, with Elvis becoming the second artist to pull off that feat. The late Iconic DJ Casey Kasem told this story on the April 24, 1971 episode of his countdown show “American Top 40,” almost exactly 52 years to the day before Belafonte’s passing (April 25, 2023). The episode happens to be airing on SiriusXM’s 70s channel as I am writing this tribute.

Harry Belafonte performs “Day-O” Live in 1956.

Calypso was also crowned the top album of 1956 in Billboard’s year-end rankings for the year, with the My Fair Lady soundtrack finishing second. 

But, with all of this “king”-led domination, it was a “Lady” that would have the last laugh.

The soundtrack to My Fair Lady beat out all those Belafonte and Presley albums to rank as 1957’s top album, a feat it would repeat for 1958 as well.

In all, Harry Belafonte and Elvis Presley combined to occupy the No. 1 album chart position for 64 of the 93 weeks that Billboard published a weekly list from 1956-57, with soundtracks accounting for 21 of the remaining weeks and Nat King Cole owning the other eight. 

Of course, Belafonte and Presley would take different paths in life after those two years. 

Both men’s mid-sixties chart success waned as popular music styles changed and they had other life priorities: Presley, who’d joined the U.S. Army for a two-year stint in 1958, stopped touring for seven years, while Belafonte would become a stronger Civil Rights activist in the sixties than he had already been.

Ultimately, Presley was able to continue having No. 1 albums both before and after his hiatus, while Belafonte’s music legacy was mostly constrained to those earlier years.  Although he recorded more than 30 LPs, he would never have another No. 1 album after Calypso.

Presley died in 1977 at an early age, 42, while Belafonte nearly reached centenarian status, living to the age of 96.

But for two years in their younger lives, both men battled on the album charts in the kind of two-man domination that rarely has been seen since.

And, true to their crownings as kings, both their musical legacies have continued well past 1956-57 and will last well beyond their time on this earth.


DJRob (he/him/his), chart trivia geek, is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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By DJ Rob

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