Harry Belafonte has died at the age of 96. Belafonte was a Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-winning singer and actor, civil rights activist, philanthropist, humanitarian, and UN Goodwill Ambassador.
Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. was born in Harlem on March 1, 1927. From ages five to thirteen, Belafonte lived with his grandmother in her native Jamaica. Upon returning to the states, he attended George Washington High School in Washington Heights, then joined the U.S. Navy and served during World War II. After the war, Belafonte found work as a janitor’s assistant. A tenant tipped him a pair of tickets to the American Negro Theatre, where he fell in love with acting AND met his lifelong friend and collaborator Sidney Poitier. He attended the New School’s Dramatic Workshop alongside Poitier, Marlon Brando, Bea Arthur, and Walter Matthau and later found work on Broadway. He earned a Tony Award for his performance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.
Belafonte’s music career began as a way for him to pay for acting classes, but he found some success as a club singer. He debuted with Charlie Parker before making his way to the legendary Greenwich Village jazz club, the Village Vanguard. Belafonte’s love wasn’t jazz, though; it was folk music. In 1953, he signed a contract with RCA Victor; that same year, he made his film debut in the Dorothy Dandridge-starring Bright Road. The following year, Belafonte released his debut album, Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, and reunited with Dandridge for Carmen Jones.
In 1956, Belafonte recorded his breakthrough album, Calypso, which contained the song that would become his signature: “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”. Calypso spent thirty-one weeks at #1 on the Billboard album chart and was the first album in history to sell more than one million copies. That same year, Belafonte filmed his follow-up to Carmen Jones, Island in the Sun, a film about race relations and interracial romance in a fictional Caribbean nation. He also co-wrote the film’s theme song.
After his musical career peaked in the early 1960s, Belafonte took much of the decade off to raise a family with his second wife, Julie Robinson, and to participate in the civil rights movement. He didn’t make another motion picture until 1970’s The Angel Levine (though he did make the occasional television appearance). In 1972, he co-starred with Poitier in the latter’s directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher.
The remainder of the 1970s saw Belafonte working on beloved projects like The Muppet Show and Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be… You and Me, as well as recording the occasional album. His final studio album, Paradise in Gazankulu (a protest of the South African government’s policy of apartheid), was released in 1988.
Also in 1988, Belafonte was introduced to a new generation when four of his songs – including “Day-O” and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)” – were featured in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.
With his recording career behind him and his movie roles few and far between, Belafonte focused primarily on humanitarian and political causes but still made the occasional television appearance. In 1997, PBS aired An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Friends; the event ended with a rousing sing-along of “Day-O”.
In 2018, Belafonte made his final film appearance in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman.
Harry Belafonte died of congestive heart failure on April 25, 2023, at the age of 96. He left behind a wife, four children, five grandchildren, and a cultural and artistic legacy for the ages. Here are a few more highlights from Belafonte’s life and career: