Harry Belafonte, King of Calypso and Social Activist, Dies at 96

Harry Belafonte, the singer, actor and civil rights activist whose calypso songs and commitment to social justice brought him fame and friendships with figures including Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., has died. He was 96.

(Bloomberg) — Harry Belafonte, the singer, actor and civil rights activist whose calypso songs and commitment to social justice brought him fame and friendships with figures including Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., has died. He was 96.

He died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan, the New York Times reported, citing Ken Sunshine, his spokesman. The cause was congestive heart failure.

Belafonte’s recording of Banana Boat Song — with its opening cry, “Day-O” — propelled his career in the 1950s after a long struggle to make it as a singer. He won a Tony award in 1954 for his performance in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. On top of his Grammy awards, he became the first Black male performer to win an Emmy, for the 1959 television special Tonight With Belafonte.

Belafonte was at King’s side for his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963. Two years later, he enlisted singer Tony Bennett and actor Charlton Heston to join him for King’s famous march in Selma, Alabama.

“I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist. I was an activist who’d become an artist,” Belafonte said in his 2011 memoir, My Song.

He opposed the US war in Vietnam during the 1960s and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Handsome and charismatic, Belafonte starred in a number of movies. He appeared opposite Dorothy Dandridge in Bright Road and Carmen Jones in the 1950s, though his songs were dubbed because his voice wasn’t strong enough for the operatic numbers.

Carnegie Hall

He played a bank robber forced to work with a White racist in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), a film he also co-produced. Following that “exceptionally tough and bleak” movie, said critic David Thomson, “some kind of blackballing seems to have set in,” and Belafonte was offered fewer film roles.

Belafonte’s Carnegie Hall performances in 1959 and 1960 were well received, however, and Frank Sinatra recruited him to sing at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

In 1989, the Kennedy Center honored him as “an actor, humanitarian and the acknowledged ‘King of Calypso.’” He earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

Harold George Belafonte was born on March 1, 1927, in the Harlem section of New York, to a domestic-worker mother from Jamaica and a father from Martinique who worked as a chef on merchant ships.

Often in trouble at school, Belafonte was sent to Jamaica at age 9 after his parents divorced. He was 13 and enjoying the island’s leisurely pace when his mother summoned him back to New York.

Anger Surfaces

Though now attuned to calypso’s sounds and rhythms, Belafonte found himself in an alien environment where Whites proved hostile toward Black neighbors.

In Belafonte, an unauthorized 1960 biography, Arnold Shaw wrote that the singer masked his sensitivity and need for acceptance by showing belligerence toward White people.

In 1943 he enlisted in the US Navy. While in training at Newport News, Virginia, he met Frances Marguerite Byrd, and they married five years later.

Following his two years in the military, Belafonte in 1945 saw a performance of Home Is the Hunter at the American Negro Theater and was hooked. He began working as a volunteer stagehand and studied acting with classmates including Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.

He won an amateur-night audition at a Broadway jazz club and was booked for one week as a singer. The venue extended Belafonte’s run for 20 weeks, long enough for him to earn his first Carnegie Hall appearance.

‘My Style’

Downbeat magazine termed him “superior” to many veteran performers, yet Belafonte said he soon realized that jazz singing “was not my style.”

“I found I had nothing to contribute,” he said. He turned to folk songs in “an attempt to find a culture in which I could learn and the structure within which I could function.”

Hired for two weeks at the Village Vanguard, a club in New York’s Greenwich Village where he was backed by saxophonist Charlie Parker, Belafonte stayed for 14 weeks and was signed by Capitol Records. His first pop records pleased neither disk jockeys nor the public, and Capitol soon dropped him.

His singing career stalled until he made Calypso in 1956, the first album to sell more than 1 million copies. He went on to release about 50 albums.

In his live performances, Belafonte managed to thrill critics and fans alike. Critic Nat Hentoff wrote that Belafonte showed “unprecedented power” as a singer with complete command of his audience.

His singing at a major Las Vegas hotel took “the room by storm,” Variety said. This was in the 1950s, and he still couldn’t use the hotel’s facilities — not the pool, casino or dining rooms.

Suffering Insults

White teens besieged him for autographs, Belafonte said, yet airline clerks in the South insulted him. In 1956, after being asked to sing the national anthem at a North-South football game in Miami, he was told there wasn’t time for him to go on. He refused to back out and sang the anthem anyway.

By the late 1950s, the mounting pressures of stardom and life on the road began to take a toll on Belafonte’s marriage to Byrd, which had produced two daughters, Adrienne and Shari. After 10 years of marriage, the couple divorced. Soon afterward, Belafonte married Julie Robinson, a dancer.

They had a son, David, and daughter, Gina, and divorced after being married almost 50 years. In April 2008, Belafonte married Pamela Frank, a photographer.

In 2001, when Belafonte released a box set of CDs called The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, he was asked if he was still as angry at 74 as at 34. 

“The anger hasn’t changed,” he said. “I’ve got to be a part of whatever the rebellion is that tries to change all this. The anger is a necessary fuel. Rebellion is healthy.”

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