‘Barrier-breaking’ singer and activist Harry Belafonte dies, age 96

Apr 26, 2023
Belafonte's big break came in 1956 when he released his first album, Calypso, which became the first LP to sell over one million copies. Source: Getty Images.

Harry Belafonte, the legendary American singer, actor, and social activist, has died at the age of 96, leaving behind a lasting legacy in the entertainment industry and the fight for civil rights.

According to a statement from his longtime spokesperson Ken Sunshine, Belafonte passed away on Tuesday, April 25, at his New York home from congestive heart failure with his wife Pamela by his side.

Born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York City, Belafonte grew up in poverty and spent his childhood shuttling between his mother’s home in Jamaica and his father’s in New York City. He left high school at the age of 17 and enlisted in the Navy during World War II. After his discharge from the Navy, Belafonte returned to New York City and worked as a janitor’s assistant while pursuing his dream of becoming an entertainer.

Belafonte’s entry into the entertainment industry was a slow one, but he gradually made his way onto the scene through various means. He first started performing in small clubs in New York City, including the Royal Roost and the Village Vanguard.

In the late 1940s, Belafonte honed his acting skills by attending classes at the prestigious Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City, where he studied alongside a talented group of actors including Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, and Sidney Poitier under the guidance of the influential German director Erwin Piscator. Belafonte’s talents were quickly recognised and he received a Tony Award for his outstanding performance in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac in 1954. He also starred in 3 for Tonight a popular Broadway revue in 1955 alongside Gower Champion.

Belafonte’s big break came in 1956 when he released his first album, Calypso, which became the first LP to sell over one million copies. The album featured the hit song Banana Boat Song (Day-O) which became an international sensation and helped popularise calypso music in the United States. Belafonte’s success as a recording artist opened doors for him in the film and television industries, and he appeared in a number of movies and TV shows throughout the 1950s and 1960s such as Carmen Jones and Island in the Sun.

In addition to his entertainment career, Belafonte has also been a vocal advocate for social justice and civil rights throughout his life. He worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and was instrumental in organising the 1963 March on Washington. He also served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, focusing on issues affecting children in developing countries.

Following the news of his passing, prominent figures such as former US President Barack Obama and singer Patti LaBelle, as well as legions of fans, came together to honor the memory of the “great entertainer.”



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