Belafonte, Harry (actually, Harold George Jr.)

views updated

Belafonte, Harry (actually, Harold George Jr.)

Belafonte, Harry (actually, Harold George Jr.), American singer and actor; b. N.Y., March 1, 1927. Belafonte was best known for singing such calypso-styled Caribbean folk songs as “Jamaica Farewell, “Mary’s Boy Child” and “Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” Albums like Belafonte, Calypso, and Belafonte at Carnegie Hall made him one of the most successful recording artists of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He expanded from that base to become an internationally popular concert performer as well as a singer, actor, and producer of films; he also became a social activist.

Belafonte’s father, Harold George Belafonte, a British subject originally from the island of Martinique, was a cook in the British Royal Navy; his mother, Melvine Love Belafonte, was a Jamaican who worked as a dressmaker and domestic. His parents split up during his childhood, and when he was eight or nine his mother took him and his brother back to Jamaica, where she remarried. The family returned to N.Y. in 1940. He quit high school in 1944 to enlist in the navy and was discharged the following year. In December 1945 he attended a play put on by the American Negro Theatre and eventually joined the troupe. He also attended the dramatic workshop taught by Erwin Piscator at the New School for Social Research on the G.I. Bill. On June 18, 1948, he married Frances Marguerite Byrd, a psychology student at N.Y.U. who later taught there; they had two children and divorced on Feb. 28, 1957.

At the suggestion of his friend Monte Kay, who was involved with the Royal Roost nightclub, Belafonte began singing at the club in January 1949. Kay became his manager, and he recorded his first single, “Lean on Me”/”Recognition” (both music and lyrics by Harry Belafonte), for Jubilee Records. He was then signed by the more prestigious Capitol Records. In the fall of 1949 he was a regular on the variety series Sugar Hill Times on network television. But he was uncomfortable singing jazz and pop music, and abandoned his singing career by the end of 1950. He and a couple of friends opened a restaurant, The Sage, in Greenwich Village, which brought him into contact with the emerging folk music scene. He developed an interest in the folk music of the West Indies and put together a club act of such songs that he premiered at the Village Vanguard nightclub in October 1951. After a lengthy engagement there, he moved uptown to the Blue Angel and then to nightclubs around the country.

Belafonte’s success as a nightclub performer led to other opportunities. He was signed to a contract by RCA Victor Records and achieved his first chart entry in April 1953 with “Gomen Nasai (Forgive Me)” (music by Raymond Hattori, lyrics by Benedict Myers). That same month, he appeared in his first film, Bright Road, in which he sang “Suzanne,” a song he wrote with accompanist Millard Thomas. He made his Broadway debut in the revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac (N.Y., Dec. 10, 1953), singing the songs “Hold ’em Joe” (music and lyrics by Harry Thomas), “Acorn in the Meadow”(music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross), and “Mark Twain” (music and lyrics by Harry Belafonte); he won the Tony Award for Outstanding Supporting or Featured Musical Actor.

In October 1954, Belafonte appeared in Carmen Jones, the film version of Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen as a contemporary all-black Broadway musical; Belafonte’s singing in the demanding role was dubbed. In 1955 he toured the country with dancers Marge and Gower Champion in the revue 3 for Tonight, which reached Broadway on April 17 for 85 performances and then was broadcast on network television in June, earning him two Emmy nominations: Best Male Singer and Best Specialty Act—Single or Group. In November he returned to television as an actor in an episode of G.E. Theatre.

Belafonte’s recording career took an upswing with the proliferation of the 12-inch LP in the mid-1950s, and he first reached the album charts in January 1956 with “Mark Twain” and Other Folk Favorites, which made the Top Ten. In February 1956, RCA released Belafonte, which hit #1 in March and went gold. Calypso, released in May, did even better, topping the charts in September, going gold, and becoming the biggest album of the year. With this recording success, Belafonte graduated from clubs to theaters and even larger venues. In June 1956 he sold out Lewisohn Stadium in upper Manhattan, and in July he broke box office records during a two-week engagement at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

For the Christmas season RCA released the Belafonte single “Mary’s Boy Child” (music and lyrics by Jester Hairston), which peaked in the Top 40 in December (nearly a year later it hit #1 in the U.K.). The following month, “Jamaica Farewell” (music and lyrics adapted by Lord Burgess from a traditional West Indian folk song), culled from the Calypso LP as a single, was just as successful. RCA then released another Calypso track, “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” (music and lyrics by Alan Arkin, Bob Carey, and Erik Darling), giving Belafonte his biggest hit single; it peaked in the Top Ten in February 1957 and sold a million copies.

On March 8, 1957, Belafonte married dancer Julie Robinson; they had two children. He released his third consecutive gold album that month, An Evening with Harry Belafonte, and it lodged in the Top Ten. In April he peaked in the Top 40 of the singles charts with “Mama Look at Bubu” (music and lyrics by Lord Melody, a pseudonym for Fitzroy Alexander). He starred in the film Island in the Sun in June, and both his recording of the title song and its B-side, “Cocoanut Woman” (both music and lyrics by Harry Belafonte and Lord Burgess), peaked in the Top 40 in July. The songs were featured on his next album, Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean, which entered the charts in September and became his fifth consecutive LP to reach the Top Ten.

Belafonte’s career was interrupted by a series of eye operations in 1958, though he managed to undertake his first European tour. By the time he returned to record-making with Belafonte Sings the Blues in the fall of 1958, his commercial momentum had slowed, and the album missed the Top Ten, as did its follow-ups Love Is a Gentle Thing and a duet album with Lena Home, Porgy & Bess, both released in the spring of 1959. Having formed his own film production company, Belafonte was involved in developing both of his next movies, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, released in April 1959, and Odds Against Tomorrow, released in October. But neither was a success, and he avoided film acting for a decade.

Belafonte’s most impressive achievements of 1959 were live performances onstage and on television. His two concerts at Carnegie Hall, April 19-20, were recorded for the double live album Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, released in October. The LP reached the Top Ten and went gold, staying in the charts more than three years. On Dec. 10 he starred in a TV special, Tonight with Belafonte, which won him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series.

Belafonte repeated his successes of 1959 in 1960. On May 2 he again performed at Carnegie Hall, this time with guests Odetta, Miriam Makeba, and the Chad Mitchell Trio; Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall, another double album, was released in November and became a Top Ten, gold-selling hit, earning Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Vocal Performance, Male. (Belafonte won his first Grammy that year, for Best Folk Performance for the single “Swing Dat Hammer”) His next TV special, Belafonte, broadcast on Nov. 20, earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Variety.

Belafonte scored his sixth gold album with Jump Up Calypso, released in August 1961. The Midnight Special, released in April 1962, was his ninth LP to reach the Top Ten; it also earned a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Recording. After that his recordings retreated from the top of the charts, although they continued to sell well. Belafonte at the Greek Theatre (1964), which spent more than four months in the charts, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Recording, and the singer won that award the following year for the chart album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. He also continued to tour regularly and to appear on and produce television shows. But from the mid-1960s on, he devoted much of his attention to social issues, especially civil rights.

After almost three years away from recording records, Belafonte released Homeward Bound at the end of 1969; it was his last charting album. He also returned to film for the first time in 11 years, appearing in The Angel Levine, released in July 1970. He appeared in the films Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974), both directed by his friend Sidney Poitier, but did not return to acting full-time.

Belafonte became more active at the end of the 1970s, touring internationally in 1979-83. In August 1981 he released his first U.S. album in many years, Loving You Is Where I Belong, and starred in a television movie, Grambling’s White Tiger, that was broadcast Oct. 4, 1981. He produced the film Beat Street in 1984 and was prominently involved in the USA for Africa charity program in 1985, performing on the single “We Are the World” and at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985. He signed to EMI Records and released Paradise in Gazankulu (1988) and Belafonte ’89 (1989). In July 1989 he again appeared at the Greek Theatre. In the 1990s he did more film acting, notably in director Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), Ready to Wear (1994), and Kansas City (1996), as well as White Man’s Burden (1995).


“Mark Twain” and Other Folk Favorites (1956); Belafonte (1956); Calypso (1956); An Evening with Harry Belafonte (1957); Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean (1957); Belafonte Sings the Blues (1958); Love Is a Gentle Thing (1959); Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (1959); Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall (1960); Jump Up Calypso (1961); The Midnight Special (1962); Belafonte at the Greek Theatre (1964); Homeward Bound (1969); Loving You Is Where I Belong (1981); Paradise in Gazankulu (1988). Lena Home: Porgy & Bess (1959).

—William Ruhlmann

About this article

Belafonte, Harry (actually, Harold George Jr.)

Updated About content Print Article