Harry Belafonte, singer, actor and civil rights activist, dies at 96


Segregation was rampant, doorways have been closed and, in Nineteen Fifties America, the chances of a Black entertainer ascending to the Broadway stage, live performance venues and screens giant and small appeared impossibly lengthy.

But with cool confidence, a magnetic attraction and an armload of wistful Caribbean folks songs, Harry Belafonte beat the chances in a historic rise to stardom — the primary Black man to win a Tony, the primary Black man to win an Emmy, the primary artist to file an album that offered 1 million copies.

Effectively conscious of the battles nonetheless to be fought , Belafonte additionally turned a civil rights activist, a confidant to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a pal of the marginalized and a globe-trotting humanitarian.

“I’ve obtained to be part of regardless of the revolt is that tries to vary all this,” he advised the New York Instances in 2001. “The anger is a essential gasoline. Riot is wholesome.”

Lengthy a logo of what was proper and first rate on the planet, Belafonte died Tuesday at his residence in New York of congestive coronary heart failure together with his spouse, Pamela, at his aspect, his longtime spokesman Ken Sunshine mentioned. Belafonte was 96.

Belafonte, who fueled a world calypso craze within the Nineteen Fifties together with his addictive model of the “Banana Boat Track,” squeezed a lot into his decades-long profession that it was tough to fathom all of it.

Described in Look journal in 1957 as the primary Black matinee idol in leisure historical past, the tall, trim and easily good-looking singer amassed a formidable string of early accolades in an period when Black actors have been largely solid as maids, home helpers and laborers.

In 1954, he received a Tony Award for greatest featured actor in a musical for his efficiency within the Broadway revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” and 6 years later received an Emmy for his efficiency in “The Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte.”

His 1956 album “Calypso,” which included “Jamaica Farewell” and “Day-O,” his model of the “Banana Boat Track,” charted at No. 1 for a staggering 31 weeks.

Together with his signature stage apparel of {a partially} opened tailor-made cotton shirt and tight black slacks, Belafonte captivated audiences. A 1959 Time journal cowl story known as his act “a brilliantly deliberate and executed mixture of artistry and showmanship.”

Belafonte’s emergence as a vastly common entertainer with each Black and white audiences arrived throughout a post-World Battle II period when the civil rights motion was simply coming into focus and attitudes have been slowly shifting

“So far as Black entertainers have been involved, Belafonte in some ways appeared to be a startling new type of determine,” mentioned Donald Bogle, a tradition critic and creator of quite a few books on Black People in movie and tv. “There hadn’t been someone fairly like him on the scene.”

And tv, which was changing into a potent cultural power in America on the time, helped make Belafonte and his music common with an enormous viewers “as a result of folks might see him, and his look was essential,” mentioned Bogle.

By tv, “you bought a way of his intercourse attraction,” mentioned Bogle. “Ladies beloved him and males felt comfy with Belafonte as effectively.”

Belafonte was one in every of various common Black entertainers and actors, together with Sammy Davis Jr., Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier, who emerged on the time.

Belafonte, whom singer and actress Diahann Carroll described to Time as “essentially the most stunning man I ever set eyes on,” was additionally seen on the large display screen in a handful motion pictures through the ’50s, a time when few Black performers have been provided distinguished movie roles.

After making his film debut in 1953 as a Southern faculty principal reverse Dandridge’s instructor in “Vibrant Highway,” Belafonte starred with the actress within the hit 1954 musical “Carmen Jones.”

In 1957, Belafonte broke one other colour barrier — and stirred controversy — when he turned the primary Black American actor to play a romantic lead in a function film reverse a white main woman (Joan Fontaine) within the Caribbean-set movie “Island within the Solar.”

However, as Bogle noticed, “the filmmakers wouldn’t permit Belafonte and Fontaine to kiss, nor was their relationship totally explored.”

In 1959, Belafonte starred in two movies, “The World, the Flesh and the Satan” and “Odds Towards Tomorrow.”

However, Bogle mentioned, “Belafonte in motion pictures was by no means what he was on tv by way of his impression, partly due to the compromises of the scripts and his personal persona. He didn’t have that type of magnetism on the large display screen.”

Belafonte, whose later movie credit included “Buck and the Preacher,” “Uptown Saturday Evening” and “Kansas Metropolis,” established one of many first all-Black music publishing firms within the late ’50s.

It was a part of Belafonte Enterprises, whose subsidiaries included a movie manufacturing firm known as HarBel Productions. Different enterprise models dealt with the singer’s live performance excursions and backed Broadway performs, together with Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed “A Raisin within the Solar.”

A supporter of Sen. John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential marketing campaign, Belafonte sang at Kennedy’s inaugural gala and was named “cultural advisor” to the then-newly created Peace Corps.

As his fame and fortune grew within the Nineteen Fifties, the singer-actor devoted growing quantities of his money and time to supporting the rising civil rights motion.

Belafonte already was politically energetic when King known as him in 1956 to ask the entertainer to fulfill with him at a Baptist church in Harlem whereas he was on a fundraising swing for the group operating the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.

The 2 males had an extended, non-public assembly in a Sunday faculty classroom within the church basement.

“It was a life-changing second,” Belafonte recalled in a 2007 interview with the Guardian. “From then on, I used to be in his service and in his world of planning, technique and considering. We turned very shut instantly.”

Belafonte’s friendship with King included holding a “secret” fundraiser in his Manhattan condo to assist elevate bail cash for King’s Birmingham marketing campaign in 1963, figuring out that a few of the civil rights chief’s supporters would probably be arrested. Belafonte additionally rounded up a contingent of stars to seem onstage with King on the Lincoln Memorial through the historic March on Washington a couple of months later.

Belafonte, who helped launch one of many first voter registration drives in Mississippi and supplied financing for the Freedom Riders, additionally served as a center man between King and Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy.

A long time later, Belafonte’s social activism took a high-profile twist.

Impressed by Irish singer-songwriter Bob Geldof’s Band Assist charity super-group, whose single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” raised cash for famine aid in Ethiopia, Belafonte contacted expertise supervisor Ken Kragen and proposed doing an identical mission in the USA.

The end result was the star-studded “We Are the World” recording that raised thousands and thousands for famine aid in Africa in 1985.

Belafonte, who was appointed a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1987, was a 1989 recipient of a Kennedy Heart Honor.

In a toast to Belafonte through the black-tie tribute, then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) mentioned the entertainer “has given nobly and unselfishly to the reason for making our nation a greater place and our planet a greater world. Many nice artists have a conscience too, however none larger than his.

“He has two qualities that describe the brilliance of his life: braveness and excellence,” Kennedy mentioned.

Belafonte additionally was awarded the Nationwide Medal of Arts in 1994. And in 2000, the two-time Grammy winner acquired the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

All through his lengthy profession, Belafonte continued to sing “Day-O,” which he as soon as described as having turn out to be, “a longtime a part of American folks tradition.”

He wouldn’t consider doing a live performance with out performing it, he advised The Instances in 2000.

“I take pleasure in doing it very a lot,” he mentioned, “and audiences take pleasure in it greater than I do as a result of they sing together with me — and so they do it with gusto.”

Explaining the unique “Banana Boat Track” in a 1993 interview with the New York Instances, he mentioned: “That track is a lifestyle. It’s a track about my father, my mom, my uncles, the women and men who toil within the banana fields, the cane fields of Jamaica. It’s a basic work track.”

He was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in New York Metropolis on March 1, 1927. His mom was a home employee; his father, a violence-prone alcoholic on the time, was a prepare dinner who most frequently labored on United Fruit Co. boats between New York and Caribbean and South American ports.

“I used to be born into poverty, grew up in poverty, and for a very long time, poverty was all I assumed I’d know,” Belafonte wrote in his 2011 memoir “Harry Belafonte: My Track.”

He made various visits to Jamaica when he was younger. And in 1936, when he was 9, his mom took him and his 5-year-old brother Dennis to Jamaica to dwell full time to get away from what he later mentioned have been the hazards and temptations of residing in Harlem.

When their mom was unable to discover a job in Jamaica, she returned to New York and left her two sons behind to attend faculty. Belafonte’s dad and mom have been legally separated by 1940 and his mom introduced him and his brother again to New York to dwell together with her.

Belafonte, who later found he was dyslexic, dropped out of college halfway by means of the ninth grade and labored a collection of strange jobs earlier than enlisting within the Navy shortly after turning 17 in 1944. He was stationed at Port Chicago exterior San Francisco, the place he loaded army ships sure for the Pacific theater within the ultimate months of World Battle II.

Returning to Harlem after his discharge in December 1945, he obtained a job working as a janitor’s assistant in an condo constructing.

That January, he hung Venetian blinds for a tenant, an actress, who as a tip gave him two tickets to a play on the American Negro Theatre in Harlem.

The play, about Black servicemen returning residence to Harlem, was the primary he’d ever seen, and it modified his life.

“That play didn’t simply converse to me. It mesmerized me. This was an entire new world — an exhilarating world,” he wrote on his memoir.

He had no intention of changing into an actor on the time, however simply to get near this excellent new world, he volunteered to be a stagehand on the theater.

He quickly was requested to learn for a small position in a comedy. That led to a bigger position in one other play. By July 1946, Belafonte was enjoying a number one position within the American Negro Theatre’s manufacturing of “Juno and the Paycock.”

Belafonte, who turned shut mates with one other fledgling younger actor on the theater, Sidney Poitier, started attending the Dramatic Workshop of the New College for Social Analysis on the GI Invoice.

A break in touchdown a job in an off-Broadway manufacturing of “Sojourner Reality” in 1948, nonetheless, didn’t instantly result in extra performing jobs for the 21-year-old Belafonte.

Newly married to his first spouse Marguerite, he started working full time pushing garments racks within the Garment District.

Then an sudden break got here: The supervisor of the Royal Roost, a high New York Metropolis jazz membership, who had heard Belafonte sing in a play, provided him a job singing throughout intermissions.

Earlier than lengthy, Belafonte was packing the membership, and he went from making $70 every week to $200 every week.

“It was breathtaking,” Belafonte recalled. “I went from being a no one who didn’t assume he might sing to strolling on stage at Carnegie Corridor, one evening that spring, to simply accept a plaque from the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper, as essentially the most promising new singer within the nation.”

Twice divorced, Belafonte had 4 youngsters, Adrienne and Shari together with his first spouse, and David and Gina together with his second spouse, Julie. He’s additionally survived by his spouse, Pamela Frank, and eight grandchildren.

McLellan is a former Instances employees author.


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