Born Harold George Belafonte, Jr., March 1, 1927, in New York, NY; son of Harold George and Melvine (Love) Belafonte; married, 1948; wife's name Marguerite (divorced); married Julie Robinson (a dancer), March 8, 1957; children: Adrienne, Shari, David, Gina. Education: Attended Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research, studying under Erwin Piscator. Addresses: Office-- Belafonte Enterprises Inc., 830 8th Ave., New York, NY 10019.
It is said that the worlds of music and morality do not collide, but rather balance harmoniously in the life and work of entertainer Harry Belafonte. In the 1950s Belafonte introduced the colorful, bouncy melodies of calypso music to the United States, and American listeners began swaying to the jaunty Caribbean beat and singing "Day-O" along with the masterful crooner. Since that time Belafonte has used his visibility as an entertainer to cast a political spotlight on humanitarian causes ranging from world hunger to civil rights to the plight of children in the Third World. Belafonte's accomplishments, and the awards bestowed on him in the spheres of entertainment and activism, show a man equally committed to musical excellence and political virtuousness.
Known as the "consummate entertainer," Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York, in 1927. His parents were West Indian, and he moved with his mother to her native Jamaica when he was a child. In the five years he spent on the island he not only absorbed the music that was such a vital part of the culture but also observed the effects of colonialism, the political oppression that native Jamaicans had to endure under British rule. "That environment gave me much of my sense of the world at large and what I wanted to do with it," Belafonte was quoted as saying in the Paul Masson Summer Series. "It helped me carve out a tremendous link to other nations that reflect a similar temperament or character."
Once back in Harlem, another culturally and artistically rich environment, Belafonte became street smart, learning the hard lessons of survival in the big city. When the United States entered World War II, he ended his high school education and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After an honorable discharge he returned to New York City, where he bounced between odd jobs. His first foray into the world of entertainment came in the late 1940s when he was given two tickets to a production of the American Negro Theater. He was hooked after one performance. "I was absolutely mesmerized by that experience," he told the Ottawa Citizen in 1990. "It was really a spiritual, mystical feeling I had that night. I went backstage to see if there was anything I could do." His first leading role with the company was in Irish playwright Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. Impressed by the power and message of O'Casey's words, and by the promise of theater in general, Belafonte enrolled in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research, studying under famous German director Erwin Piscator, whose other students included Rod Steiger and Bea Arthur.
Belafonte was concerned about the scarcity of work for black actors but got a break when, as a class project, he sang an original composition called "Recognition." His audience was spellbound. Among the listeners was the owner of the Royal Roost Nightclub, a well-known Broadway jazz center. Belafonte was offered a two-week stint that, due to such positive reception, blossomed into a twenty-week engagement. At the Roost and later at other clubs, such as the Village Vanguard in New York City's Greenwich Village, Belafonte charmed audiences with his husky-yet-sweet-voiced adaptations of popular and West Indian folk songs.
Armed with a recording contract with Capital Records and the praise of critics, this bright new talent started making his mark. He first appeared on Broadway in John Murray Anderson's Almanac, for which he won a Tony Award. In 1955, in a television adaptation of the film Carmen Jones, Belafonte played the lead role and endeared himself to a national audience. Throughout the next few decades he continued to act in films such as Island in the Sun and Uptown Saturday Night, and produced television programs such as A Time for Laughter, in which he introduced U.S. audiences to then nationally unknown humorists Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx.
It was in 1956, with the release of his album Calypso, that Belafonte sealed his status as a superstar and consummated America's love affair with Caribbean music. His most famous recordings, "Banana Boat Song" (popularly known as "Day-O") and "Matilda," recalled the melodies, rhythm, and spirit of Jamaica and other West Indian cultures. Throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, Belafonte reached into the lore and music of other cultures, most notably those of South America and Africa. He also continued with his celebrated interpretations of American folk ballads and spirituals, but he is always most closely associated with the zest and spunk of calypso.
Belafonte's Calypso was the first album to sell more than one million copies, a benchmark that led to the establishment of the Grammy Awards. The album was only one of many illustrious firsts in Belafonte's life. He was the first black man to win an Emmy Award as well as the first black television producer. He was also the first entertainer to be named cultural adviser to the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy.
Belafonte's success on vinyl and tape has always translated well in his live concerts, where he uses sing-alongs, dialogue with audience members, and a contagious energy and excitement to get the crowds responding jubilantly. Dave Hoekstra wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1990 that Belafonte "sings from discovery and fulfillment.... So when you listen to the Belafonte songbook on a perfect summer night, you know the dignity, poise and spiritual exploration will still be heard long after the voice has passed. That is Harry Belafonte's lasting contribution to American popular music."
As important as his accomplishments in music are Belafonte's political activities on behalf of humanitarian causes around the world. And more often than not he has been able to successfully merge these two passions. In 1985 Belafonte helped organize the recording session for the philanthropic and inspirational We Are the World, which won a Grammy Award, and he has been involved in many projects aimed at helping those suffering from poverty, homelessness, and famine around the world. As a result of his efforts to fight segregation in the United States, Belafonte was named to the board of directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a leading civil rights organization, and he has been chair of the memorial fund bearing the name of his friend, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1987 he was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and he has been dubbed the "Children's Patron Saint" by Ebony magazine.
Belafonte's interest in Africa--particularly in those suffering under apartheid's white minority rule in South Africa--and his admiration for African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, inspired his critically acclaimed 1988 album Paradise in Gazankulu. Banned on South African radio, the album was praised for beautifully capturing in music the painful and haunting stories of life in a land infamous for its oppressiveness. In 1990 Howard Reich, appraising Belafonte's role as both entertainer and activist, wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "Like very few entertainers, he knows how to lure an audience to his point of view--or his political cause--without preaching. Belafonte's message is one of hope and optimism, even in the face of the global tragedies he decries."
by Isaac Rosen
Harry Belafonte's Career
Singer, actor, producer, political activist. Joined the American Negro Theater, late 1940s, appearing in Juno and the Paycock; performed at such clubs as the Royal Roost Nightclub and the Village Vanguard, New York City, late 1940s and early 1950s; appeared on Broadway in John Murray Anderson's Almanac, 1953; appeared in television adaptation of Carmen Jones, 1955; released Calypso, 1956; appeared in films, including Island in the Sun, 1957, Uptown Saturday Night, 1974, First Look, 1984, and The Player, 1992; produced television program A Time for Laughter, 1967; helped organize We Are the World recording session, 1985. Named cultural adviser to the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy; named member of the board of directors, Southern Christian Leadership Conference; chair of Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Fund; appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, 1987. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1943-45.
Harry Belafonte's Awards
Tony Award for best supporting actor, 1953, for John Murray Anderson's Almanac; Emmy Award, 1960, for Tonight With Harry Belafonte; Grammy Award, 1985, for We Are the World.
- Selective Works
- Mark Twain RCA, 1954.
- Calypso (includes "Banana Boat Song"), RCA, 1956.
- Belafonte (includes "Matilda"), RCA, 1956.
- An Evening With Belafonte RCA, 1957.
- Harry Belafonte Songs of the Caribbean RCA, 1957.
- Belafonte Sings the Blues RCA, 1958.
- Love Is a Gentle Thing RCA, 1959.
- (With Lena Horne) Porgy and Bess RCA, 1959.
- Belafonte at Carnegie Hall RCA, 1959.
- My Lord What a Mornin' RCA, 1960.
- Swing Dat Hammer RCA, 1960.
- Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall RCA, 1960.
- Jump Up Calypso RCA, 1961.
- To Wish You a Merry Christmas RCA, 1962.
- Midnight Special RCA, 1962.
- The Many Moods of Belafonte RCA, 1962.
- Streets I Have Walked RCA, 1963.
- Belafonte at the Greek Theater RCA, 1964.
- Ballads, Blues, and Boasters RCA, 1964.
- (With Miriam Makeba) An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba RCA, 1965.
- (With Nana Mouskouri) An Evening With Belafonte/Mouskouri RCA, 1966.
- In My Quiet Room RCA, 1966.
- Calypso in Brass RCA, 1967.
- Belafonte on Campus RCA, 1967.
- Belafonte Sings of Love RCA, 1968.
- Homeward Bound RCA, 1970.
- Belafonte by Request RCA, 1970.
- Belafonte Warm Touch RCA, 1971.
- This Is Belafonte RCA, 1971.
- Don't Stop the Carnival RCA, 1972.
- Play Me RCA, 1973.
- Turn the World Around Columbia Records, 1977.
- Loving You Is Where I Belong Columbia Records, 1981 (Europe).
- Paradise in Gazankulu EMI, 1988.
- Harry Belafonte: All Time Greatest Hits RCA, 1988, volumes 2 and 3, 1989.
- Belafonte '89 EMI, 1989 (Europe).
- Belafonte '89 (abridged version), EMI, 1990 (United States).
- Pure Gold RCA.
January 21, 2006: Belafonte addressed the Arts Presenters Members Conference, taking the opportunity to speak out against what he called repressive tactics employed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/people/2006-01-21-belafonte_x.htm, January 21, 2006.
June 27, 2006: Belafonte won the BET Humanitarian Award. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, June 30, 2006.
- Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1990.
- Ebony, September 1988.
- Fun & Gaming, March 1, 1990.
- Ottawa Citizen, January 13, 1990.
- Paul Masson Summer Series, June 1989.
- Sun-Times (Chicago), July 27, 1990.
- Additional information obtained from a 1991 Belafonte Enterprises Inc. biography.