Harry Belafonte, the effortlessly elegant singer credited with popularizing calypso in the United States in the 1950s and who later marched at the forefront of the country’s civil rights struggle for half a century, died Tuesday, according to his spokesman.
I was 96.
Belafonte died of congestive heart failure at his home in New York City, spokesman Ken Sunshine confirmed to NBC News.
Sealed with the release of the landmark album “Calypso” in 1956, Belafonte’s legacy as a dazzling and charismatic singer and actor spanned more than six decades.
Active almost to the end
Most recently, in 2018, he made a chilling appearance in the film “BlacKkKlansman,” in which he plays an older civil rights leader recounting the judicial prosecution and brutal lynching of Jesse Washington, a black teen pawn, in Waco, Texas, in 1916.
Belafonte, after several years of poor health, had to get his doctor’s permission to shoot the scene. The movie director, skewer reads, told Deadline.com: “I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ And I told the crew, ‘When you come to set tomorrow, I want you to have a suit on, a tie, wear your best Sunday clothes.’ If you dress loosely, don’t come to work, because we have a very special guest.’”
Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in New York Harlem, in 1927, the son of Harold George Bellanfanti Sr., a Martinique-born chef, and Melvine Bellanfanti, a Jamaican-born housekeeper. Between the ages of 8 and 13, he lived in Jamaica with his mother and returned to the US to continue high school before serving in the Navy during World War II.
Belafonte attended the New School for Social Research Drama Workshop on the GI Bill, in a class that included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, and Sidney Poitier, who would become a lifelong friend.
In addition, he sang in New York nightclubs, where he found his first success turning his smooth, graceful renditions of pop, jazz and folk classics into an engagement at the Village Vanguard, where he was soon discovered by RCA Victor and signed to a record deal in 1952.
An EGOT winner and a lifetime of awards
Belafonte received most of the top honors the US reserves for its revered artists and performers, including the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, the BET Humanitarian Award in 2006, the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 2013, and the Motion Picture Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.
That honorary Oscar meant that Belafonte has awards in all four major entertainment competitions, earning him the rare EGOT honor.
Black novelist and composer William Attaway urged Belafonte to “view popular songs as a body of social knowledge, a collective resource open to all,” University of Massachusetts scholar Judith E. Smith wrote in her 2014 biography, “Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Radical Audience.”
Thereafter, Belafonte focused on vernacular and folk music, much of it expressions of the Black and Caribbean experience. Within a year, he had a hit single, «Matilda,» that would remain in his repertoire for decades. In 1954, he reached number 3 on the album charts with «Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites.»
He had also scored on Broadway, winning a Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical in 1954 for the revue. «John Murray Anderson’s Almanac».
And then came 1956, when he ruled the music world with two No. 1 albums, «Belafonte» and «Calypso,» a milestone in American popular music that was the first LP to be certified with sales of 1 million or more.
Best known for ‘Day-O’
The album, which featured Belafonte’s signature number «Day-O (Banana Boat Song),» with its unforgettable Jamaican dockworker lament, spent 99 weeks on the charts, 31 of them at number 1, which remains the fourth longest run on Billboard chart history.
He also established calypso, an African Caribbean folk blend rooted in Trinidad and Tobago, as an enduring component of the American music scene, earning him the nickname «King of Calypso.»
He paved the way for a wave of folk acts that dotted the charts until the start of the British music invasion of the mid-1960s and continues to influence folk and «island music» artists such as Jimmy Buffett, Alison Hinds, Buster Poindexter, Mighty Sparrow. , the Mighty Vikings and David Rudder.
“Years later, it remains a record of inestimable influence, inspiring many singers and folk groups”, wrote the celebrated music historian and writer Cary Ginell about “Calypso”.
Belafonte established himself in television during the 1950s and 1960s, receiving an Emmy in 1960 for his performance in the musical special “Tonight with Belafonte”, which made him the first black artist to win an Emmy. He followed it up with another nomination the following year.
By 1954, Belafonte was in movies, too, having won a prized leading role in the film adaptation of «Carmen Jones,» the all-black Broadway musical reimagining Georges Bizet’s opera «Carmen.»
Despite his record sales and his Tony Award for music revue, Belafonte was not allowed to sing in the film; His songs were dubbed by opera singer LeVern Hutcherson.
Seeking to take control of his career, Belafonte mounted his own film production in 1959, «Odds Against Tomorrow,» a gritty film noir written by blacklisted screenwriter Abe Polonsky and backed by a score by John Lewis.
The film, about a black nightclub entertainer clashing with a racist white bank robber, received good reviews and was nominated for a Golden Globe, but flopped at the box office.
always a pioneer
It was one of many boundary-pushing moments throughout Belafonte’s life and career; In April 1968, for example, a television special starring Belafonte and white pop singer Petula Clark created a national stir because Clark briefly touched Belafonte’s arm during a duet..
Such incidents only empowered Belafonte, whose social consciousness began to emerge in the early 1950s under the guidance of Paul Robeson, the scholarly singer, artist and activist he called his mentor.
From 1954 to 1961, Belafonte refused to perform in the Deep South, making him a target for white racist commentators and briefly landing him on Hollywood’s notorious blacklist during the McCarthy era.
By the early 1960s, Belafonte had become a force in the Civil Rights Movement. Already a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he campaigned for Senator John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, and after Kennedy was elected, he became a go-between for King and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. .
At the forefront of the civil rights movement
It was Belafonte who put up the money in 1963 to get King out of jail in Alabama, where King articulated the civil rights strategy of nonviolence most forcefully in his «Letter from Birmingham Jail.»
Belafonte teamed up with King in 1956 at a New York fundraiser for activists working in Montgomery, Alabama. King later said that Belafonte was «a key ingredient in the global fight for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the Civil Rights Movement here in America,» adding: «We are blessed by your courage and moral integrity..”
King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, trusted Belafonte so much that after King was assassinated in 1968, Belafonte was appointed executor of King’s estate.
“Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry always came to our aid, his generous heart wide open,” Coretta Scott King wrote in her 1969 autobiography, “My life with Martin Luther King, Jr.“
Belafonte supported a wide variety of civil rights causes throughout the 1960s: As the top financier of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he even flew to Mississippi to join the organization’s Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign in 1964.
His attention soon broadened to encompass human rights throughout the world, especially in Africa.
received his second Grammy for the 1965 album “An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba”, a collection of folk and protest songs that he recorded with South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba. (Belafonte’s first Grammy was awarded for «Swing Dat Hammer», in the category of Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording in 1961.)
He began a long period of advocacy for the oppressed black majority of South Africa’s apartheid government, a moment highlighted by his years as a board member of the TransAfrica Forum, founded by Randall Robinson in 1977.
In 1985, Belafonte was arrested at a protest outside the South African Embassy in Washington. The same year, he led the effort to bring the Band Aid African aid music project to the US from Britain, resulting in the monumental USA for Africa fundraising concerts and the single «We Are the World», for which he recruited nearly every lead singer of the day.