Harry Belafonte - Biography

By J Poet

Harry Belafonte was one of the first American artists to be known by one name. He was dubbed - Belafonte - in 1956 when his eponymous album (Belafonte, 1956, RCA) hit #1 on Billboard’s pop charts and stayed on the charts for almost a year. Its blend of show tunes and folk material set the stage for his next salvo, the legendary Calypso (1956, RCA). Calypso made him a superstar; it was the first LP album to go gold, spent 31 weeks at #1, and stayed on the pop charts for almost two years. Although the Caribbean grooves on Calypso sound fairly laid back to modern ears, at the time they caused a sensation, helping to kick off the folk revival and lay the foundation for the world music boom. He was the first African American to become a sex symbol, this at a time when segregation in the US was still virulent.


Belafonte was born in 1927 in Harlem, New York’s biggest African American ghetto. In the years he was growing up, the neighborhood was a hot bed for the creative arts, which might of influenced him to become an actor and singer. After a Navy hitch, he took acting lessons with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio with classmates Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Sidney Poitier. Before starting his singing career, he was a well-known actor in the American Negro Theatre Company and won a Tony Award for his participation in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac alongside Polly Bergan, Larry Kert (soon to star in West Side Story), and Tina Louise. Ironically, he started singing to help pay for his acting lessons. He formed a duo with a guitar-playing friend, Millard Thomas, and in the early 50s, knocked out the audiences at The Village Vanguard with a set that combined standards and folk songs. (Thomas stayed with Belafonte for most of his musical career, one of the unsung heros of American folk music.)


Belafonte’s role in Otto Preminger’s hit musical Carmen Jones in 1954 made him a movie star. Even though an opera singer dubbed Belafonte’s singing in the film, he landed a record deal with RCA and his career took off. His early albums continued to mix West African hand drums, Cuban piano arrangements and South African rhythms, making him one of the Godfathers of World music, a mantle he both acknowledges and downplays. “My parents traveled between New York and Jamaica,” he said in a recent interview. “They had Haitian friends, Cuban friends, Brazilian friends, and they all made music. In those days, New York City was a musical melting pot; it was natural to draw on those influences.”


His albums after Calypso included An Evening with Belafonte (1957, RCA), Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean (1957, RCA) and Belafonte Sings the Blues (1958, RCA). They showed the singer in a variety of settings and did well, but it was Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (1959, RCA) a live two record set, that was his next blockbuster, one of the few live albums to actually capture the electricity of a live performance. In the late 50s, Belafonte introduced Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela to America, and they both went on to successful careers. His generosity as a friend and performer was in evidence on his second live album, Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall (1960, RCA). It was another major success and featured performances by Miriam Makeba, Odetta, The Chad Mitchell Trio and the Belafonte Folk Singers. He also helped Makeba get a contract with RCA. 


Belafonte continued making albums in the ‘60s, but with the advent of The Beatles, the interest of the public waned. Solid efforts from those years include Jump Up Calypso (1961, RCA, Gold), The Midnight Special (1962, RCA) which blended big band, blues, gospel and soul and featured Bob Dylan in his first studio appearance, backing Belafonte on harmonica, An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba (1965, RCA) and Belafonte on Campus (1967, RCA).


For most of his life, Belafonte used his celebrity to shine a light on America’s racial injustices. He was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sat on the executive board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, raised money for civil right groups with benefit concerts, funded voter registration drives and got other artists involved in civil rights events like the March on Washington, the protests in Birmingham and the Selma to Montgomery March. President Kennedy appointed Belafonte cultural advisor to the Peace Corps in 1960, and he created the Belafonte Foundation to support African students studying in the United States. In the 1980s, Belafonte initiated the We Are the World project. Belafonte was also one of the first artists involved in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1990, he served as host of the United Nations’ World Summit for Children; the conference produced ‘The World Declaration of the Survival, Protection and Development of Children.’ More recently he’s supported Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and calls George W. Bush “the world’s greatest terrorist.”


Since the 70s, Belafonte’s commitments to social justice and his acting career, have taken up much of his time. His films include Buck and the Preacher (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974) White Man’s Burden (1995), Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996) and Bobby (2006).


His albums may not be million sellers, but that has more to do with the way the business has changed than Belafonte’s talent. He continues to be generous to young artists and still blends music from all over the African Diaspora into his sound. Suggested listening: Harry and Lena (with Lena Horne) (1970, RCA), Calypso Carnival (1970, RCA), Belafonte…Live (with South African singer Letta Mbulu) (1972, RCA) Paradise in Gazankulu (1988, EMI), cut in South Africa with many of that country’s best session players in the wake of Graceland, and full of the political fire and righteous anger Simon’s opus lacked, An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Friends, (1997, PolyGram) which is the soundtrack for a PBS special and is as much world music as folk/calypso with favorites such as “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jamaica Farewell” radically reworked by the band’s musical director Richard Bona. Belafonte inked a deal with Island/PolyGram to become proprietor of his own label, Niger Records, in 1997, but nothing has been heard from the logo so far.


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