The Legendary Harry Belafonte Has Died At 96
Harry Belafonte, singer, actor, activist, and EGOT winner, died this morning of congestive heart failure at his home in Manhattan. Harry’s wife Pamela Frank, was with him when he passed. Harry Belafonte was 96. A few years ago, Harry Belafonte said that if he could choose what is written on his tombstone, he’d go with the words, “Harry Belafonte, Patriot.” Get on that tombstone writers, and go ahead and add the words, “Legend. Icon. Pioneer. Titan. Tall Drink of Hotness,” and on.
Harry Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. on March 1, 1927, in Harlem. His parents were both biracial, his mother was from Jamaica, and his father was from Martinique. Harry spent much of his childhood in NYC, but after the Harlem Riot of 1935, his mother took her family to Jamaica to live for a few years. Harry went back to NYC as a teenager, and after graduating from high school, he joined the Navy and served during World War II. After the war, he worked as a janitor’s assistant in NYC, and during that time, a tenant paid him with tickets to a show at the American Negro Theater. Harry went, instantly fell in love, and knew then that acting was his calling. Harry became friends with future legend Sidney Poitier, who, like him, was in love with the theater but didn’t have a lot of money. So the two of them would buy one ticket to a play, and one would see the first act, and the other would see the second act, and they’d tell each other about it afterward. Harry started taking classes at New School’s Dramatic Workshop and performed with the American Negro Theatre.
Harry only got a job as a club singer to pay for his acting classes, but it wasn’t long before Harry’s yodeling was paying all the bills. After Harry signed with RCA Victor, he released his breakthrough single, Matilda, which brought calypso music to American audiences. In 1956, Harry’s album Calypso became the first LP to sell over 1 million copies within a year. It spent 31 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Top 100 Albums chart. On that album are the now classics, Jamaica Farewell and The Banana Boat Song, a song that ears instantly recognize within the first second of hearing it. Someone says “Day!” and I’ll immediately say “O!” It’s natural instinct at this point. Here’s Harry performing the song during a concert in Tokyo in 1960:
The Banana Boat Song has been covered over and over again, and of course, set the stage for one of the best moments in Beetlejuice.
Calypso was Harry Belafonte’s signature sound, but his vocal cords could do it all. He recorded songs in all types of genres, including show tunes, pop, folk, gospel, and American standards. In 1960, Harry starred in his TV special, Tonight With Belafonte, and it got him an Emmy. Harry also used his influence and fame to introduce stars of African music to the US. His joint album An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba with South African singer Miriam Makeba won a Grammy in 1966.
Harry made his film debut in the 1953 movie A Bright Road. A year later, he brought massive amounts of charisma and potent sexiness to the screen when he starred with Dorothy Dandridge in the movie version of the Broadway musical Carmen Jones. Even though Harry had already proven that he had a velvety soft singing voice and had just won a Tony for his performance in the revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, his singing voice was dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson. And Dorothy Dandridge’s singing voice was dubbed by Marilyn Horne.
Harry also starred in the movies Island in the Sun (1957), the Sidney Poitier-directed Buck and the Preacher (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Kansas City (1996), and Bobby (2006). He also had cameos in Robert Altman’s The Player and Ready-T0-Wear. Harry’s last film role was as a civil rights pioneer in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018). That role was perfectly fitting for Harry since he was a civil rights pioneer.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Harry refused to perform in the American South and financially backed several movements, including the Freedom Rides. Harry was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s close confidantes and bailed him out when he was arrested in Birmingham. And Harry helped organize the historic 1963 March on Washington. Harry also fought the good fight for other causes like prostate cancer awareness, gay rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. We can also thank Harry Belafonte for We Are The World. After the UK charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas? was released in 1984, Harry got the idea to put together a song to help raise money for African famine relief. We Are The World was released in 1985 and featured pretty much every famous person at the time.
As mentioned at the beginning of my post, Harry was an EGOTer! In addition to his Emmy, Grammys, and Tony, he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards in 2015. He was also given the Nelson Mandela Courage Award and the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. And last year, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Harry was married to Marguerite Byrd from 1948 to 1957. They shared two daughters, Adrienne, and Shari Belafonte. Harry was married to his second wife, Julie Robinson, for 47 years until they divorced in 2004. Harry and Julie shared two children, David and Gina Belafonte. He married his third wife, Pamela Frank, in 2008. He is survived by his wife, four children, two stepchildren, and eight grandchildren.
And now I leave you with Harry Belafonte bringing the tears while singing Turn The World Around at Jim Henson’s Memorial in 1990. Harry performed the song on The Muppet Show in 1978 and that episode was Jim Henson’s favorite.
Rest in peace, Harry Belafonte.
Pic: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images