Belafonte, Harry (1927—)

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Belafonte, Harry (1927—)

Singer, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte with his "Jamaica Farewell" launched the calypso sound in American popular music and through his performances popularized folk songs of the world to American audiences. As an actor, Belafonte tore down walls of discrimination for other minority actors, and as an activist, profoundly influenced by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he fought for the civil rights of Africans and African Americans for decades. A popular matinee idol since the 1950s, Belafonte achieved his greatest popularity as a singer. His "Banana Boat (Day-O)" shot to number five on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1957. His Calypso album released in 1956 was certified gold in 1963 and the 1959 album Belafonte at Carnegie Hall certified gold in 1961. Belafonte was the first African American television producer and the first African American to win an Emmy Award.

Born on March 1, 1927, in New York City, Harold George Belafonte, Jr. was the son of Caribbean immigrants. His mother, Melvine Love Belafonte, was from Jamaica and his father, Harold George Belafonte, Sr., was from Martinique. In 1935, after his father left the family, Belafonte and his mother moved to her native Jamaica where Belafonte spent five years attending school and assimilating the local music. In 1940, he returned to the public schools of New York but in 1944, at the age of seventeen, dropped out to enter the U.S. Navy for a two-year stint. In 1948, Belafonte married Julie Robinson, a dancer.

After seeing a production of the American Negro Theater, Belafonte knew he wanted to become an actor. He attended the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research, studying under the direction of Erwin Piscator. As a class project, he had to sing an original composition entitled "Recognition" and after his performance drew the attention of Monte Kay who later became his agent. Since few acting opportunities opened and Belafonte needed to support his family, Kay offered him a singing engagement at the Royal Roost, a jazz night club in New York. After attracting favorable reviews, Belafonte established himself as a creditable jazz and popular singer. But by 1950, feeling that he could not continue singing popular music with a sincere conviction, he abruptly switched to folk songs and began independently studying, researching, and adapting folk songs to his repertoire. His folk singing debut in 1951 at the Village Vanguard in New York's Greenwich Village was a smashing success. Belafonte subsequently opened a restaurant catering to patrons who appreciated folk singing, but it closed in three years because it was not commercially viable.

Belafonte recorded for Jubilee Records in 1949 and signed with RCA Victor records in 1956 with his first hit, "Banana Boat (Day-O)," issued in 1957. He soon launched the calypso craze. While Belafonte was not a true calypsonian, i.e., one who had grown up absorbing the tradition, he was instead an innovator and took traditional calypso and other folk songs, dramatizing, adapting, and imitating the authentic prototypes, melding them into polished and consummate musical performances. He was called the "King of Calypso," and capitalized on the tastes of the American and European markets. His "Jamaica Farewell," "Matilda, Matilda," and "Banana Boat (Day-O)" are classics. Guitarist Millard Thomas became his accompanist. Belafonte also sang Negro spirituals and work songs, and European folk songs in addition to other folk songs of the world on recordings and in live concerts. While his hits had stopped by the 1970s, his attraction as a concert artist continued. He recorded with such well-known artists as Bob Dylan, Lena Horne, Miriam Makeba, and Odetta. Belafonte was responsible for bringing South African trumpeter and bandleader Hugh Masekela and other South African artists to the United States. In 1988, the acclaimed album Paradise in Gazankulu was banned in South Africa because of its depiction of the horrors of apartheid.

Belafonte took singing roles in the theatrical production Almanac in 1953 and opportunities for acting opened up. His first film was The Bright Road (1953) with Dorothy Dandridge. In 1954, he played the role of Joe in Carmen Jones, an adaptation of Bizet's Carmen that became one of the first all-black movie box-office successes. He starred in Island in the Sun in 1957 and Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959. In the 1970s, his film credits included Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). Belafonte also appeared in numerous television specials and starred in videos and films documenting music, including Don't Stop the Carnival in 1991, White Man's Burden in 1995, and Kansas City in 1996.

As a student in Jamaica, Belafonte observed the effects of colonialism and the political oppression that Jamaicans suffered. He committed himself to a number of humanitarian causes including civil rights, world hunger, the arts, and children's rights. The ideas of W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. exerted powerful influences on Belafonte. He participated in marches with Dr. King and in 1985 helped organize as well as perform on "We Are the World," a Grammy Award-winning recording project to raise money to alleviate hunger in Africa. Due to his civil rights work, he was selected as a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and also served as chair of the memorial fund named after Dr. King.

Belafonte continues to inspire audiences through his songs and his passion for racial justice has remained indomitable. He is one of the leading artists who has broken down barriers for people of color, made enormous contributions to black music as a singer and producer, and succeeded in achieving rights for oppressed people. His music, after more than forty years, still sounds fresh and engaging. Belafonte's genius lies in his ability to sway an audience to his point of view. His charisma, voice, and acting abilities enable him to make any song his own while at the same time keeping his audience spellbound. Selected songs from his repertoire will remain classics for generations to come.

—Willie Collins

Further Reading:

Fogelson, Genia. Harry Belafonte: Singer and Actor. Los Angeles, Melrose Square Publishing Company, 1980.

Shaw, Arnold. Harry Belafonte: An Unauthorized Biography. Philadelphia, Chilton Company, 1960.

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Belafonte, Harry (1927—)

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