After a brief cameo in Season Two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Shy Baldwin (played by Leroy McClain) takes center stage as his tour kicks off in Season Three with Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) as his opening act. Although real-life figures like comedian Lenny Bruce are strewn about the Maisel cinematic universe, Shy Baldwin, a sultry-voiced crooner, did not exist in real life. However, he’s likely based on one or more real-life musical icons of the period.
Names like Chuck Berry, Paul Anka, and Ray Charles have been thrown around online, but the internet’s most popular theory is that Shy Baldwin is based on legendary performer Harry Belafonte.
Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927 to Jamaican parents, and started his career as a club singer in New York. He became known as the “King of Calypso” with hits like “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jump in The Line,” but he also dabbled in pop, blues, folk, gospel, and show tunes. Harry Belafonte also covered “Hava Nagila” on his 1959 album, which quickly became one of his signature songs. While The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has yet to give us Shy Baldwin’s version, Midge would certainly get a kick out of it.
Mrs. Maisel first meets Shy Baldwin in Season Two at a telethon they’re both performing at, where he tells her he likes having comedians open for him. He explains that he often performs with Moms Mabley, who was a real comedian at the time. Harry Belafonte did play a role in Mabley’s career, giving her her first TV gig in his 1967 special A Time For Laughter. We also learn that Shy Baldwin, like Belafonte, has a Christmas album and covers Broadway songs. Belafonte is even name-dropped in the episode we first meet Baldwin.
This season, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel gives a few more hints that Shy Baldwin’s character could be based on Harry Belafonte. Baldwin very casually digs at Elvis in Episode Two at his house party, calling him the “kid with the hips who stole our people’s sound.” In the late ’50s, music critics feared that the “calypso craze” in the U.S. would overshadow rock and roll, and indeed, Belafonte’s record “Calypso” outsold two LP’s put out by Elvis Presley in 1956. As the kings of their respective genres, Belafonte and Presley were often placed at odds with one another in the media, and Shy Baldwin’s subtle reference to this rivalry could be a nod to Belafonte.
There are a few other noteworthy similarities between Belafonte and Baldwin in the new season. Baldwin mentions in his Vegas press conference that he has won a Grammy, which Belafonte did, too. In that same press conference Baldwin cites Nat King Cole as his main influence, explaining how he took him under his wing. In real life, Belafonte and Nat King Cole had a close friendship and working relationship. Belafonte even performed on Cole’s show.
Star Rachel Brosnahan has a different theory. She told Refinery29 that Shy is “kind of an amalgamation of a lot of different figures who were that successful, but Johnny Mathis comes to mind.”
Johnny Mathis did record a cover of “They Say It’s Wonderful” in 1959, a song which Shy Baldwin sings for his Vegas audience in the show. Although Mathis never won a Grammy like Belafonte, he did cite Nat King Cole as an influence in a 1968 interview, which we see Baldwin do in Episode Three.
Whichever icon Shy Baldwin is based on, we still have our fingers crossed for a “Hava Nagila” cover.