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 dynamic force in the civil rights movement, died 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 spokesperson.
At a time when segregation was still widespread and Black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, 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 included 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 1 million copies.
Belafonte 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.
Success as a singer led to movie offers, and 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 Belafonte, who became the first bona fide Black matinee idol.
But making movies was never 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 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 fundraisers for that organization and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
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. They rejoined her in Harlem in 1940.
Belafonte dropped out of George Washington High School in Manhattan in 1944 and enlisted in the Navy. 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 Byrd had two children, Adrienne Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte, who survive him, as do his two children by dancer Julie Robinson, Gina Belafonte and David; and eight grandchildren. He and 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Credit: Family photo
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