April 25, 202310:18 AM ET
A 1976 portrait of the singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte. He died Tuesday at age 96.
Singer, actor and human rights activist Harry Belafonte died Tuesday at age 96 of congestive heart failure. He broke racial barriers and balanced his activism with his artistry in ways that made people around the world listen. Belafonte, who was an EGOT holder for his Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, died at his home in New York, his publicist announced.
Style, class and charisma: That was Harry Belafonte as a performer. In the 1950s, his recordings for RCA Victor, which included his iconic version of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O” (also known as “The Banana Boat Song”) set off a craze for calypso music. With his good looks and his shirt unbuttoned to his chest, audiences — Black and white — adored Belafonte at a time when most of America was still segregated.
Belafonte was born in Harlem. His parents were from the Caribbean; his mother was Jamaican, and his father was from the island of Martinique. His mother, who was a cleaning lady, took him back to her native Jamaica, where he absorbed the island’s culture.
The singer told NPR in 2011 that his recording of “The Banana Boat Song” was inspired by the vendors he heard singing in the streets.
“The song is a work song,” he said. “It’s about men who sweat all day long, and they are underpaid. They’re begging for the tallyman to come and give them an honest count: ‘Count the bananas that I’ve picked so I can be paid.’ When people sing in delight and dance and love it, they don’t really understand unless they study the song — that they’re singing a work song that’s a song of rebellion.”
And that song of rebellion was a smash. The album Calypso was a best seller, holding a spot at the top of Billboard’s then newly-created album charts for several weeks in 1956.
Years earlier, Harry Belafonte dropped out of high school and joined the Navy. After serving in World War II, he was working as a janitor’s assistant, when someone gave him tickets to a performance at the American Negro Theatre. He was riveted.
He started training there, alongside Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. He also started singing in clubs. Pretty soon, he had a recording contract.
In 1954, he won a Tony Award for a revue called “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac: A Musical Harlequinade.” He starred in movies and appeared on TV variety shows. In 1959, he was given a one-hour show on CBS. Called “The Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte,” the program had dance numbers, folk songs, and both Black and white performers. The program won an Emmy Award — the first for an African-American.
Revlon asked him for more shows. According to Belafonte, CBS stations in the south complained about its integrated cast. In interviews, he said he was asked to make it all-Black. He says he refused, and left the show.