Singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte is dead. He was 96 years old. The New York Times first reported on the death.
US singer and actor Harry Belafonte is dead. The entertainer, who became known for the hit “Banana Boat Song”, died at the age of 96, as US media reported unanimously on Tuesday. Belafonte was a trailblazer for black artists in the United States and was also active as a civil rights activist and in the fight against poverty.
Harry Belafonte, who stormed the pop charts and smashed racial barriers in the 1950s with his highly personal brand of folk music, and who went on to become a major force in the civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 96.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Ken Sunshine, his longtime spokesman.
At a time when segregation was still widespread and Black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, Mr. Belafonte’s ascent to the upper echelon of show business was historic. He was not the first Black entertainer to transcend racial boundaries; Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and others had achieved stardom before him. But none had made as much of a splash as he did, and for a few years no one in music, Black or white, was bigger.
Born in Harlem to West Indian immigrants, he almost single-handedly ignited a craze for Caribbean music with hit records like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” His album “Calypso,” which contained both those songs, reached the top of the Billboard album chart shortly after its release in 1956 and stayed there for 31 weeks. Coming just before the breakthrough of Elvis Presley, it was said to be the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies.
He was equally successful as a concert attraction: Handsome and charismatic, he held audiences spellbound with dramatic interpretations of a repertoire that encompassed folk traditions from all over the world — rollicking calypsos like “Matilda,” work songs like “Lead Man Holler,” tender ballads like “Scarlet Ribbons.” By 1959 he was the most highly paid Black performer in history, with fat contracts for appearances in Las Vegas, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and at the Palace in New York.
Success as a singer led to movie offers, and Mr. Belafonte soon became the first Black actor to achieve major success in Hollywood as a leading man. His movie stardom was short-lived, though, and it was his friendly rival Sidney Poitier, not Mr. Belafonte, who became the first bona fide Black matinee idol.
But making movies was never Mr. Belafonte’s priority, and after a while neither was making music. He continued to perform into the 21st century, and to appear in movies as well (although he had two long hiatuses from the screen), but his primary focus from the late 1950s was civil rights.
Early in his career, he befriended the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and became not just a lifelong friend but also an ardent supporter of Dr. King and the quest for racial equality he personified. He put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He provided money to bail Dr. King and other civil rights activists out of jail. He took part in the March on Washington in 1963. His spacious apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan became Dr. King’s home away from home. And he quietly maintained an insurance policy on Dr. King’s life, with his family as the beneficiary, and donated his own money to make sure the family was taken care of after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.
(Nonetheless, in 2013 he sued Dr. King’s three surviving children in a dispute over documents that Mr. Belafonte said were his property and the children said belonged to the King estate. The suit was settled the next year, with Mr. Belafonte retaining possession.)
In an interview with The Washington Post a few months after Dr. King’s death, Mr. Belafonte expressed ambivalence about his high profile in the civil rights movement. He would like, he said, to “be able to stop answering questions as though I were a spokesman for my people,” adding, “I hate marching, and getting called at 3 a.m. to bail some cats out of jail.” But, he said, he accepted his role.
Harry Belafonte Dies / The Challenge of Racism
In the same interview, he noted ruefully that although he sang music with “roots in the Black culture of American Negroes, Africa and the West Indies,” most of his fans were white. As frustrating as that may have been, he was much more upset by the racism that he confronted even at the height of his fame.
His role in the 1957 movie “Island in the Sun,” which contained the suggestion of a romance between his character and a white woman played by Joan Fontaine, generated outrage in the South; a bill was even introduced in the South Carolina Legislature that would have fined any theater showing the film. In Atlanta for a benefit concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1962, he was twice refused service in the same restaurant. Television appearances with white female singers — Petula Clark in 1968, Julie Andrews in 1969 — angered many viewers and, in the case of Ms. Clark, threatened to cost him a sponsor.
He sometimes drew criticism from Black people, including the suggestion early in his career that he owed his success to the lightness of his skin (his paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother were white). When he divorced his wife in 1957 and married Julie Robinson, who had been the only white member of Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe, The Amsterdam News wrote, “Many Negroes are wondering why a man who has waved the flag of justice for his race should turn from a Negro wife to a white wife.”
When RCA Victor, his record company, promoted him as the “King of Calypso,” he was denounced as a pretender in Trinidad, the acknowledged birthplace of that highly rhythmic music, where an annual competition is held to choose a calypso king.
He himself never claimed to be a purist when it came to calypso or any of the other traditional styles he embraced, let alone the king of calypso. He and his songwriting collaborators loved folk music, he said, but saw nothing wrong with shaping it to their own ends.
“Purism is the best cover-up for mediocrity,” he told The New York Times in 1959. “If there is no change we might just as well go back to the first ‘ugh,’ which must have been the first song.”
Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. was born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem. His father, who was born in Martinique (and later changed the family name), worked occasionally as a chef on merchant ships and was often away; his mother, Melvine (Love) Bellanfanti, born in Jamaica, was a domestic.
In 1936 he, his mother and his younger brother, Dennis, moved to Jamaica. Unable to find work there, his mother soon returned to New York, leaving him and his brother, he later recalled, to be looked after by relatives who were either “unemployed or above the law.” They rejoined her in Harlem in 1940.
Awakening to Black History
Mr. Belafonte dropped out of George Washington High School in 1944 and enlisted in the Navy, where he was assigned to load munitions aboard ships. Black shipmates introduced him to the works of W.E.B. Du Bois and other African American authors and urged him to study Black history.
He received further encouragement from Marguerite Byrd, the daughter of a middle-class Washington family, whom he met while he was stationed in Virginia and she was studying psychology at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). They married in 1948.
He and Ms. Byrd had two children, Adrienne Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte, who survive him, as do his two children by Ms. Robinson, Gina Belafonte and David; and eight grandchildren. He and Ms. Robinson divorced in 2004, and he married Pamela Frank, a photographer, in 2008, and she survives him, too, along with a stepdaughter, Sarah Frank; a stepson, Lindsey Frank; and three step-grandchildren.
Harry Belafonte, legendary singer, actor and political activist, dies aged 96
Harry Belafonte, a singer, songwriter and groundbreaking actor who started his entertainment career belting “Day O” in his 1950s hit song “Banana Boat” before turning to political activism, has died at the age of 96, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.
The cause of Belafonte’s death was congestive heart failure, his longtime spokesperson Ken Sunshine told the Times.
Attempts by Reuters to reach Sunshine were not immediately successful.
As a Black leading man who explored racial themes in 1950s movies, Belafonte would later move on to working with his friend Martin Luther King Jr. during the U.S. civil rights movement in the early 1960s. He became the driving force behind the celebrity-studded, famine-fighting hit song “We Are the World” in the 1980s.
Belafonte once said he was in a constant state of rebellion that was driven by anger.
“I’ve got to be a part of whatever the rebellion is that tries to change all this,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “The anger is a necessary fuel. Rebellion is healthy.”
Belafonte was born in New York City’s borough of Manhattan but spent his early childhood in his family’s native Jamaica. Handsome and suave, he came to be known as the “King of Calypso” early in his career. He was the first Black person allowed to perform in many plush nightspots and also had racial breakthroughs in movies at a time when segregation prevailed in much of the United States.
In “Island in the Sun” in 1954 his character entertained notions of a relationship with a white woman played by Joan Fontaine, which reportedly triggered threats to burn down theaters in the American South. In 1959’s “Odds Against Tomorrow” Belafonte played a bank robber with a racist partner.
In the 1960s he campaigned with King, and in the 1980s, he worked to end apartheid in South Africa and coordinated Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the United States.
‘We are the world’
Belafonte traveled the world as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, in 1987 and later started an AIDS foundation. In 2014 he received an Academy Award for his humanitarian work.
Belafonte provided the impetus for “We Are the World,” the 1985 all-star musical collaboration that raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia. After seeing a grim news report on the famine, he wanted to do something similar to the fund-raising song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by the British supergroup Band Aid a year earlier.
“We Are the World” featured superstars such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Diana Ross and raised millions of dollars.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?'” Belafonte said in a National Public Radio interview in 2011. “I say to them, ‘I was long an activist before I became an artist.'”
Even in his late 80s, Belafonte was still speaking out on race and income equality and urging President Barack Obama to do more to help the poor. He was a co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington held the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president in January 2017.
Belafonte’s politics made headlines in January 2006 during a trip to Venezuela when he called President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.” That same month he compared the U.S. Homeland Security Department to the Gestapo of Nazi Germany.
An anthology of his music was released to mark Belafonte’s 90th birthday on March 1, 2017. A few weeks before the launch, Belafonte told Rolling Stone magazine that singing was a way for him to express injustices in the world.
“It gave me a chance to make political commentary, to make social statements, to talk about things that I found that were unpleasant – and things that I found that were inspiring,” he said.
Born Harold George Bellanfanti in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, he moved to Jamaica before returning to New York to attend high school.
He had described his father an abusive drunk who abandoned him and his mother, leaving Belafonte with a longing for a
stable family. He drew strength from his mother, an uneducated domestic worker, who instilled the activist spirit in him.
“We were instructed to never capitulate, to never yield, to always resist oppression,” Belafonte told Yes! magazine.
Joining the resistance
During World War Two, those principles led him to join the Navy, which also provided stability after he dropped out of high school.
“The Navy came as a place of relief for me,” Belafonte told Yes! “… But I was also driven by the belief that Hitler had to be defeated … My commitment sustained itself after the war. Wherever I found resistance to oppression, whether in Africa, in Latin America, certainly here in America in the South, I joined that resistance.”
After the Navy, Belafonte worked as a janitor in an apartment building and as a stagehand at the American Negro Theater before getting roles and studying with Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier, another pioneering Black actor who would become a close friend.
He also appeared on Broadway in “Almanac,” winning a Tony Award, and in the movie “Carmen Jones” in 1954.
Belafonte’s third album, “Calypso,” became the first by a single performer to sell more than 1 million copies. “Banana Boat,” a song about Caribbean dock workers with its resounding call of “Day O,” made him a star. Surgery to remove a node on his vocal cords in the ’60s, however, reduced his voice to a raspy whisper.