He is widely known for his chart-busting album Calypso, the first album in the world to sell over 1 million copies in a year, which included the smash hit “Banana Boat Song”; but he wore the title ‘King of Calypso’ with reservations because he was no Calypso Monarch but a New Yorker of mixed Jamaican and European/Jewish parentage.
Born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York City to Jamaican-born Harold George Bellafanti Sr and Melvine Bellanfanti, Harry Belafonte – as he would later be known– immersed himself in the arts at an early age, starting his music career as a club singer in New York, the proceeds of which he used to pay for his acting classes. At his debut appearance before an audience, he was backed by the Charlie Parker band, which included Miles Davis.
His first recordings were released by the Roost label in 1949. Soon after he developed a keen interest in folk music, teaching himself through the Library of Congress’ American folk songs archives. His big break came when he performed at the legendary jazz club The Village Vanguard, backed by guitarist friend Milliard Thomas. It earned him a contract with the RCA Victor label, with which he recorded until 1974.
As he was building his music career he was also actively immersed in theatre. He first met actor Sidney Poitier at the American Negro Theatre where the two, by then struggling financially, hit it off. They started attending shows together, splitting a ticket between them such that one watched the first act and the other went in for the second act. He enrolled in acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City alongside Poitier, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and other future stars under the German director Erwin Piscator.
Before he broke the charts with his smash album Calypso he had already released the folksy hit single “Matilda” in 1953, which became his signature tune. Calypso, which also contained his other hit “Jamaica Farewell”’ is number four on Billboard’s “Top 100 Album” list for having spent 31 weeks at number 1. It is the album that introduced American audiences to calypso music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the early 19th Century.
Although he is widely known for calypso, Belafonte also recorded in other genres including gospel, blues, and show tunes. His humorous side shines through in comedic hits like “Mama Look at BuBu”, better known as “Mama Look a Boo-Boo”, about disrespectful children; together with the other classic “There’s a Hole in My Bucket”, a duet with Odetta that hit the national charts in 1961.
His recording activity slowed down after he cut his last album with RCA in 1974 until 1977 when he cut the album Turn the World Around for Columbia in 1977. By then, after extensive touring, he had shifted focus slightly from calypso to world music. Thereafter he would take a decade-long hiatus before releasing Paradise in Gazankulu with EMI in 1988, a ten-song album of protest against the Apartheid system in South Africa, and which was his last studio album.
He also featured in The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, a huge multi-artist project recorded by RCA over the 1960s and 1970s, and which was released in 2001. Belafonte was on the Today Show promoting the album on September 11, 2001, just minutes before terrorists struck the World Trade Centre. The album was nominated for the 2002 Grammy Awards for Best Boxed Recording Package, Best Album Notes, and Best Historical Album.
His last release was When Colors Come Together, an anthology of some of his earlier recordings released in 2017, and which was produced by his son David. David wrote the lyrics for an updated version of “Island In the Sun”, which was arranged by Belafonte’s longtime musical director, Richard Cummins, and which featured Belafonte’s grandchildren Sarafina and Amadeus. In total, he released 30 studio albums and eight live albums.
Belafonte was the first Jamaican American to win an Emmy for Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte in 1959. He was recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the inaugural gala of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, performing alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, and other stars.
He is credited with introducing other artists to U.S. audiences, among them the South African singer who went on to earn the sobriquet “Mama Africa” Miriam Makeba and the Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. His 1962 album Midnight Special also debuted Bob Dylan, who was then a young harmonica player.
Belafonte is highly decorated for his work, having received many awards, among them Grammys for the albums Swing Dat Hammer (1960) and An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965). He earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 and an Academy Award in 2015. In 1994 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts and in 2022 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He starred in many films, among them Buck and the Preacher (1972) in which he starred alongside his friend Sidney Poitier. He also appeared alongside John Travolta in the race-reverse drama White Man’s Burden in 1995. His role in the 1996 jazz age drama, Kansas City garnered him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor. In 1984, he produced and scored the musical film Beat Street which was about the rise of hip-hop culture. He also helped embed hip-hop culture in Cuba’s music when he met with representatives of Cuba’s rap community before he met with Fidel Castro in 1999, an event that is documented in Geoffrey Baker’s article “Hip hop, Revolucion! Nationalizing Rap in Cuba”.
His final film appearance was in Spike Lee’s Academy Award-winning film BlackkKlansman in 2018. He has also appeared on many TV specials, among them The Muppet Show and The Tonight Show where he interviewed Martin Luther King Jr and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, among other celebrities.
Other than music and acting, Belafonte was also an outspoken political activist and longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy who is said to have married politics and pop culture. Mentored by singer, actor, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, Belafonte was active in the anti-apartheid campaign that culminated in the Grammy-winning An Evening with Belafonte/Makaba. A Democrat, he was also a close confidant and financier of Martin Luther King Jr during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and a vocal critic of the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations. He also fundraised for and bankrolled many civil rights and humanitarian activities from America to Africa.
Closest to home was in 1985, when he helped to organize the Grammy Award-winning song “We Are the World”, a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa. In 1994, he went on a mission to Rwanda and launched a media campaign to raise awareness of the needs of Rwandan children. He also participated in a HIV/AIDS campaign in South Africa in 2001. He was in Kenya in 2004 on a campaign on the importance of educating children.
He also helped Obama happen in America. In the 1950s he was a supporter of the African American Students Foundation, which gave a grant to Barack Obama Sr to go study at the University of Hawaii in 1959. In the face of later opposition to President Obama’s policies, he expressed his dismay thus: “The only thing left for Barack Obama to do is to work like a third-world dictator and just put all these guys in jail. You’re violating the American desire.”
Following Robeson’s principles against Western colonialism and racial prejudice, Belafonte refused to perform in the American South from 1954 until 1961. The biographical documentary film, Sing Your Song, which focused on Belafonte’s contribution to the civil rights movement in America and his role in promoting social justice globally featured at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. He was also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador from 1987 until his death.
He died from congestive heart failure on April 25 at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City aged 96, and is survived by four children, five grandchildren, and his third wife, photographer Pamela Frank.