Singer, actress, producer and activist Harry BelafonteHe died of congestive heart failure at his home in Manhattan on Tuesday, whose music created a calypso craze in the United States and opened new avenues for African-American artists. He was 96 years old.
An award-winning Broadway performer and versatile recording and concert star of the ’50s, the lithe, handsome Belafonte became one of the first Black lead men in Hollywood. He later dived into the production business of theater and television movies.
As her career stretches into the new millennium, her dedication to social causes has never lagged behind her professional work.
Dr. A close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte was a prominent voice in the 60’s civil rights movement and later engaged in philanthropic activities on behalf of underdeveloped African countries. He was an outspoken opponent of South Africa’s apartheid policies.
Among the most honored artists of his time, Belafonte won two Grammy Awards (and the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000), a Tony and an Emmy. He also received the Motion Picture Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Governors Awards ceremony in 2014.
Harold George Belafonte Jr. He was born in New York but was sent to his grandmother in Jamaica at age 5 and returned to attend high school in New York. But Jamaica’s native calypso and mento would provide crucial material for his early musical repertoire.
Belafonte made his way to the New York theater scene after serving in the war. One of her first mentors was the famous Black actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson. He studied acting with Erwin Piscator and attended Broadway shows with another struggling young actor, Sidney Poitier – on a single ticket to give out during the hiatus. Like Poitier, he has performed at the American Negro Theater in Harlem.
But Belafonte first made her mark as a nightclub singer. Initially working in the pop and jazz style, Belafonte began her singing career at the Royal Roost in New York and made her debut on Roost Records in 1949. He soon developed a growing interest in American folk music.
This was followed by a national tour and dates at Village Vanguard and Blue Angel in New York. An MGM watcher spotted her in the second venue, and after a screen test, Belafonte landed a role opposite Dorothy Dandridge in “Bright Road” (1953).
That same year, Belafonte made his Rialto debut with the revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” and was awarded the Tony Award for best performance by a featured actor in a musical.
Ironically, Belafonte starred in the 1954 musical “Carmen Jones,” based on the Broadway adaptation of Otto Preminger’s Oscar Hammerstein II’s Bizet opera “Carmen,” while Belafonte was voiced by opera singer LeVern Hutcherson. Belafonte would soon explode on her own as a pop singer.
He made his debut on RCA Records in 1954 with “Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites”; On her Tony-winning Broadway comeback, she sang the famous folk song with her guitarist, Millard Thomas. The 1956 LP “Belafonte” with a similar folk repertoire stayed at #1 for six weeks.
These collections were just a warm-up for “Calypso”. The 1956 album ignited a nationwide calypso craze, stayed at #1 for an astonishing 31 weeks and remains one of the four longest-running chart-toppers in history. It gave birth to Belafonte’s signature song “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”, which topped the singles chart for five weeks. A parody of this ubiquitous number by Stan Freberg reached number 25 in 1957. Director Tim Burton used the melody for glossy effect in his 1988 comedy “Beetlejuice.”
Belafonte would cut five more top-five albums by 1961—including two live sets recorded at Carnegie Hall. His 1960 collection “Swing Dat Hammer” received a Grammy for best ethnic or traditional folk album; received the same award for his 1965 production “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba” in collaboration with South African folk artist Miriam Makeba.
It also provided early employment for a future folk icon: his 1962 album “Midnight Special” featured Bob Dylan’s harmonica work.
A frequent guest on TV variety shows, Belafonte became the first Black actress to win an Emmy for her 1959 special “Tonight With Belafonte.”
Belafonte made his filmmaking debut with two top feature films: the end-of-the-world drama “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil” (1959) and the heist movie “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1960). However, dissatisfied with the roles offered to him, he would stay out of the big screen for the rest of the ’60s and engage in recording and touring internationally as his involvement in the civil rights movement deepened.
Closely associated with the cleric-activist King, Belafonte provided financial support to the civil rights leader and his family. He also founded the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was a key figure in organizing the historic March on Washington in August 1963.
The racial turmoil of the 60s came very close to home: it became the center of an uproar in 1968 when she appeared as a guest star on an NBC special hosted by British pop singer Petula Clark. During the performance of an anti-war ballad, Clark grabbed Belafonte’s arm. Doyle Lott, Vice President of sponsor Chrysler-Plymouth, was present at the recording and requested that the number be removed, saying “interracial touching” might offend Southern audiences. But Clark, the owner of the show, put his foot down and the show aired as it was recorded, while executive Lott was fired by the automaker.
Belafonte returned to feature films with the outlandish “The Angel Levine” in 1970 with Zero Mostel. He co-starred with his old friend Poitier in the comedies “Buck and the Preacher” (1972) and “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), both directed by Poitier.
His acting looks would be erratic for the rest of his career. In particular, he starred opposite John Travolta in “White Man’s Burden” (1995), an alternate universe fantasy-drama about racism; Robert Altman’s collective period drama “Kansas City” (1996); and “Bobby” (2006), Emilio Estevez’s Sen. The 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy.
In 1985, Belafonte’s activism and musicianship became intertwined when he helped organize the recording session of the single “We Are the World” for the benefit of the stars dedicated to alleviating famine in Africa. His appearance in this hit culminated in “Paradise in Gazankulu” (1988), his first studio recording in over 10 years.
Recent production credits include the 1984 hip-hop drama “Beat Street” and historian Taylor Branch’s Martin Luther King Jr. There was a 2000 mini-series “Parting the Waters” based on his biography.
In 2002, “The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music,” an enormous collection of African and African-American music recorded and compiled by Belafonte over the course of a decade and originally planned to be released by RCA in the 70s, was finally released by Universal. Released as a set of five CDs in the Buddha edition. It earned three Grammy nominations.
In his later years, Belafonte remained as forthright as ever, and his views were sometimes controversial. He was an enemy of South African apartheid, opposed the US embargo on Cuba, and condemned George W. Bush’s military attack on Iraq.
Belafonte was the son of a Jamaican butler and a Martiniquan chief, and spent the early and last years of his childhood in Harlem, but his critical middle years in Jamaica. Joined the Navy in 1944; During his service, he came across the writing of WEB DuBois, co-founder and major influencer of the NAACP.
He was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989 and the National Medal of Arts in 1994.
Belafonte published his memoir, “My Song,” co-written with Michael Shnayerson, in 2011. Susanne Rostock’s biographical documentary “Sing Your Song” was released in early 2012.
He was survived by his third wife, Pamela; daughters Shari, Adrienne and Gina; they are David; stepchildren Sarah and Lindsey; and eight grandchildren.