Home » Harold George “Harry” Belafonte, Jr.

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Harold George “Harry” Belafonte, Jr.

He was born Tuesday, March 1, 1927 a true Taurus sign today still alive is an American singer, songwriter, actor and social activist. He is known as one of the most successful Caribbean American pop stars in history, he is referred to as the “King of Calypso” for popularizing the Caribbean musical style with an international audience in the 1950s.

He was born in Harlem to first-generation Jamaican immigrants; Belafonte immigrated with his mother back to Jamaica at eight years old, and returned to New York at age thirteen. Midway through high school, he dropped out and enlisted in the Navy. Upon discharge, the young man studied and performed at the Actors Studio alongside such legends as Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando, Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research, and The American Negro Theater. A singing role in a theatrical piece led to a string of cabaret engagements, and before long, His success enabled him to secure funding to open his own nightclub. His recording career officially began at the age of 22, in 1949, when he presented himself as a pop singer along the lines of Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra, but in time he found a more unique niche by delving headfirst into the Library of Congress’s archive of folk song recordings and studying West Indian music. What emerged was a highly unique blend of pop, jazz and traditional Caribbean rhythms.

His breakthrough album Calypso which was released in 1956 by RCA Victor (LPM-1248) records was the first million selling album by a single artist. Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing “The Banana Boat Song”, with its signature lyric “Day-O”. He has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards. . To call the LP popular would be the understatement of the century; each effort crested the pop charts and remained there, the latter album for well over seven months. As a result, calypso music, typified by the twin hits {&”Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”) &”Jamaica Farewell,” became a national phenomenon.

 

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As a popular music star he used his power to gain and star in several controversial film roles that studios would have rejected for a man of color in the late 1950s. His first film role was in Bright Road 1953 in which he starred with Dorthy Dandrige and they both did another together with Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones in 1954, Belafonte won a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. His broadest success to date, however, lay two years down the road. In 1957’s In Island in the Sun, there are hints of an affair between Belafonte’s character and the character played by Joan Fontaine which led to ignited racism against integrated relationships . In Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959, he plays a bank robber, uncomfortably teamed with a racist partner Robert Ryan. And in The World, The Flesh and The Devil, also made in 1959, he portrays one of the last three survivors of a world-wide nuclear disaster.

Following his SRO Carnegie Hall show in 1959, Belafonte won an Emmy for his 1960 TV special, Tonight With Harry Belafonte becoming, in the process, the first African American producer in television history. His cinematic activity nonetheless sharply declined during this period as he felt more and more dissatisfied by available film roles, but his recording output and civil rights work over the course of the 1960s. In 1970. He returned to film work for the first occasion in almost ten years, by executive producing and starring alongside Zero Mostel in Czech director Jan Kadar’s American debut, the fantasy The Angel Levine (1970). Adapted from a short story by Bernard Malamud, this gentle, sensitively-handled fable won the hearts of critics and devoted filmgoers nationwide, but subsequently fell through the cracks of the video revolution and went largely unseen for three decades. By 1971, Belafonte would act before the cameras only in the company of such close friends as Sidney Poitier, who directed Belafonte in Buck and the Preacher 1972 and Uptown Saturday Night 1974. His involvement in USA for Africa during the mid-1980s resulted in renewed interest in his music, culminating in a record deal with EMI. He subsequently released his first album of original material in over a decade, Paradise in Gazankulu, in 1988. The album contains ten protest songs against the South African former Apartheid policy and is his last studio album. In the same year Belafonte, as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, attended a symposium in Harare, Zimbabwe, to focus attention on child survival and development in Southern African countries. As part of the symposium, he performed a concert for UNICEF. A Kodak video crew filmed the concert, which was released as a 60-minute concert video titled “Global Carnival”. It features many of the songs from the album and some of his classic hits. Also in 1988, Tim Burton used “The Banana Boat Song” and “Jump in the Line” in his movie Beetlejuice. In 1984, Belafonte produced and Paradise in Gazankulu scored the musical film Beat Street, and in 1985 he won awarded an Emmy for initiating the all-star We Are the World video. After a typically long absence from the screen, Belafonte returned in the 1996 reverse-racism drama White Man’s Burden. That year, Belafonte also received some acclaim for his performance as gangster Seldom Seen in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, despite the tepid response gleaned by the film at Cannes 1996 and other festivals.

For the next fifteen years, Belafonte continued to pursue cinematic activity, though rarely signed for fictional roles. He restricted his involvement for the remainder of the nineties and into the 2000s to documentary work and concert films, with participation, often as the host, narrator, or central performer, in such projects as Roots of Rhythm 1997, An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Friends 1997, Fidel 2001, Quincy Jones: In Pocket 2002, Calypso Dreams 2003 and When the Levees Broke 2006. In late 2006 Belafonte essayed another dramatic role as Nelson, an employee of the Ambassador Hotel, in Bobby, Emilio Estevez’s highly-anticipated ensemble drama about the RFK assassination.

Alongside his recording and cinematic work, Belafonte has accumulated dozens of awards and honors bestowed upon him by various social-service and political organizations. Harry Belafonte is the father of actress/singer Shari Belafonte-Harper. Married to Marguerite Byrd from 1948-1957, he wed his second wife, Julie Robinson in 1957. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

 

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Belafonte was an early supporter of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, and one of Martin Luther King Jr’s confidants. Belafonte supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and was one of Martin Luther King Jr’s confidants. He provided for King’s family, since King made only $8,000 a year as a preacher. Like many other civil rights activists, Belafonte was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He bailed King out of Birmingham City Jail and raised thousands of dollars to release other civil rights protesters. He financed the Freedom Rides, supported voter registration drives, and helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963Throughout his career he has been an advocate for humanitarian causes, such as the anti-apartheid movement and USA for Africa. During “Freedom Summer” in 1964 Belafonte bankrolled the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, flying to Mississippi that August with Sidney Poitier and $60,000 in cash and entertaining crowds in Greenwood. In 1968 Belafonte appeared on a Petula Clark primetime television special on NBC. In the middle of a song, Clark smiled and briefly touched Belafonte’s arm, which made the show’s sponsor, Plymouth Motors, nervous. Plymouth wanted to cut the segment, but Clark, who had ownership of the special, told NBC that the performance would be shown intact or she would not allow the special to be aired at all. Newspapers reported the controversy, and when the special aired, it attracted high ratings. In 1985, he helped organize the Grammy Award-winning song “We Are the World”, a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa. He performed in the Live Aid concert that same year. In 1987 he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador. Following his appointment Belafonte traveled to Dakar, Senegal, where he served as chairman of the International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children. He also helped to raise funds—alongside more than 20 other artists—in the largest concert ever held in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1994 he went on a mission to Rwanda and launched a media campaign to raise awareness of the needs of Rwandan children.

In 2001 he went to South Africa to support the campaign against HIV/AIDS. In 2002 Africare awarded him the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award for his efforts to assist Africa. In 2004 Belafonte went to Kenya to stress the importance of educating children in the region.

Belafonte has been involved in prostate cancer advocacy since 1996, when he was diagnosed and successfully treated for the disease. On June 27, 2006, Belafonte was the recipient of the BET Humanitarian Award at the 2006 BET Awards. He was named one of nine 2006 Impact Award recipients by AARP The Magazine. On October 19, 2007, Belafonte represented UNICEF on Norwegian television to support the annual telethon TV Aksjonen in support of that charity and helped raise a world record of $10 per inhabitant of Norway. Belafonte was also an ambassador for the Bahamas. He is on the board of directors of the Advancement Project.

Belafonte has won three Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. In 1989 he received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994.

Belafonte and Marguerite Byrd were married from 1948 to 1957. They have two daughters: Adrienne and Shari. Shari Belafonte, married to Sam Behrens, is a photographer, model, singer and actress. In 1997 Adrienne Biesemeyer and her daughter Rachel Blue founded the Anir Foundation/Experience. Anir focuses on humanitarian work in southern Africa.

On March 8, 1957, Belafonte married his second wife Julie Robinson, a former dancer with the Katherine Dunham Company. They had two children, David and Gina Belafonte. David Belafonte, a former model and actor, is an Emmy-winning producer and the executive director of the family-held company Belafonte Enterprises Inc. A music producer, he has been involved in most of Belafonte’s albums and tours. David married Danish model, singer and TV personality Malena Belafonte, born Mathiesen, who won silver in Dancing with theStars in Denmark in 2009. Malena Belafonte founded Speyer Legacy School, a private elementary school for gifted and talented children. David and Malena’s daughter Sarafina attended this school. Gina Belafonte is a TV and film actress and worked with her father as coach and producer on more than six films. Gina helped found The Gathering For Justice, an intergenerational, intercultural non-profit organization working to reintroduce non-violence to stop child incarceration. She is married to actor Scott McCray.

In April 2008, Belafonte married photographer Pamela Frank. In October 1998, Belafonte contributed a letter to Liv Ullmann book Letter to My Grandchild.

Belafonte was inducted as an honorary member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity on January 11, 2014.

 

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