When we speak about the music of the 1950s, it’s impossible to forget Harry Belafonte. “Calypso” ranked number-four on Billboard's “Top 100 Album” list “for having spent 31 weeks at number 1, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the U.S. charts in 1956.” That’s hard to outdo; not even the music of the most illustrious artists today could reach that stature.
Needless to say, Harry Belafonte requires little introduction, even as he is now in his 80s. As a matter of fact, Harry is still very much involved in politics and social issues, especially matters concerning racial inequality. Being an African-American in the 1950s was more than difficult, as it was a time when color determined one’s rights and privileges. Having immigrant parents did not help, either. It would have been less bleak had his father turned out to be a source of inspiration, but that was not the case. While his father was anything but a father to him and his brother, his mother fulfilled what his father lacked.
When he started making a name as an artist, Harry did not waste time and used his fame to bring controversial issues to the fore. Activism was not yet an “in-thing,” especially with his color. It was his passion for justice that drove him to fight for what he believed was right. Harry was not a politician, yet his concern for the American people, especially those who endured racial oppression, was truly inspiring. He also met Martin Luther King, Jr. along the way and became his confidant.
It has been more than 50 years since his “Banana Boat” song, yet the tune never fails to make people dance to the beat. Now that’s what you call “timeless music!”
Harold George Belafonte, Jr. was born on 1 March 1927 in Harlem, New York, to a Martiniquan father and a Jamaican mother. Harold George, Sr. was a seaman and worked as a cook on the United Fruit Company boats. His mother, Melvine [some say Malvine] nee Love was relatively young when she married and gave birth to Harry, but it did not at all hinder her from being a good mother. They eventually had another son, named “Dennis.”
They were happier when Harry’s father was away, and filled with trepidation whenever he was home. He drank a lot, and became violent as a result. It was hard for Harry to see his mother get battered and he developed profound respect for her, who was then working as a house help and dressmaker. She was a truly remarkable woman, and it was how she faced the hurdles of young motherhood that instilled in Harry a higher sense of purpose. As she went to work each day, Harry saw a woman of worth who managed to hold her head high in spite of working menial jobs.
When he was about eight years old, his mother decided it was better for him and his brother to be sent to Jamaica to be raised by their grandmother, and for a time they only saw their mother on special occasions. His life in Jamaica, meanwhile, exposed him to Caribbean music, which would have a permanent impact on his life.
Back to the United States
When it was time for him to go to high school, his mother brought him and Dennis back to live with her in Harlem, New York. He went to George Washington High School, where he became a member of the track team. School, however, became challenging for the 17-year-old Harry; he could not seem to read or remember numbers. His teachers assumed he was just being a difficult student.
To cover up the shame he felt for his learning disability, he lived up to their expectations as a somewhat-disturbed teen, although he only finished the first term of his first year. Thinking that school was not for him, he decided to drop out, to the great dismay of his mother. He would later discover that his reading difficulty is a true condition commonly known as “dyslexia.”
After dropping out, he signed up for the United States Navy and fought in the war. According to him, African-American soldiers came back feeling arrogant and entitled to compensation from the government for of their participation in defending the country. However, nothing awaited them. With no degree and a hungry stomach to feed, he applied for a janitorial job and became an assistant janitor in a residence building in New York City.
Like his mother, Harry had great respect for his craft. He did his job with such passion and diligence that the tenants began to notice. One tenant was so happy to see the clean hallways that they gave Harry a complimentary ticket to the American Negro Theatre, where he would have his first experience of watching a play.
Seeing actors become vibrant characters on-stage fascinated the young Harry. He was also inspired by the colored people he saw, and volunteered to be a stage-hand to help design the stage and keep everything in order. He kept his janitorial job to support his training at the American Negro Theater. One person he met there was Sidney Poitier, the first-ever black Academy Award winner, and they became good friends. At first, Sidney was a painfully-quiet man. One time, Sidney and Harry were given an assignment to do together, and Harry took the opportunity to ask Sidney if he ever stayed in jail. Sidney was so furious that it actually gave him reason to talk! The two became close soon after.
Harry also shared an amusing story about Sidney’s journey to Hollywood. Harry used to pay a colleague to do the cleaning whenever he had to go to the theater for practice. One time, his reliever told him he couldn’t make it; at the time, Harry was starring in a play with Sidney as his understudy. Because his reliever couldn’t make it, Sidney had to fill in. Then came talent scouts, who happened to be looking for an African-American actor for a part in a film. Before he knew it, Sidney was making a name for himself in Hollywood.
After quite some time, Harry also made a name for himself in theater, and was chosen for the lead role in John Murray Anderson's Broadway revue, titled “Almanac.” His performance earned him a Tony Award in 1954.
The “Banana Boat Song” becomes a Hit
During one of the plays, Harry was made to sing, and that’s when the audience and his colleagues discovered his golden voice. Encouraged by the positive feedback from those who heard him perform, he began singing jazz and pop songs in nightclubs. It was not as fulfilling, however, as acting.
He decided to do some research, and went to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. to read about folk songs. It wasn’t long before he began performing Calypso music at New York’s Village Vanguard. RCA Victor then signed him to a record deal, which led to “Calypso” and several other albums.
The Calypso album included the “Banana Boat Song,” which became famous for the “Day O” lyric. It propelled Harry to fame when it became the first long-playing album to ever sell one-million copies. In the same year he earned a Tony Award (1954), Harry made his mark in history for setting a record that has yet to be broken in the calypso genre: the “Calypso” album ranks fourth on Billboard's “Top 100 Album” list for having spent 31 weeks at #1, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the U.S. charts.
Even now, we can still hear the “Banana Boat Song” being played; that’s the kind of legacy Harry left the music industry.
Although already famous, Harry was not spared from the ongoing racial discrimination of his time. In one incident which truly affected him, he used a restroom and ignored the sign on the door, which read “For Whites Only.” As he was about to use the urinal, he heard a voice behind him and turned around to see a sheriff – a white sheriff – with a revolver in his hand.
The incident angered Harry; when he became a wealthy performer, he purchased the whole building in which he stayed, as he was tired of separatist practices. His activism led to a close friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. The Reverend only earned 8,000 dollars a year, so Harry took it upon himself to help him and his family. Martin confided in him, and it was their friendship which drew Harry closer to the Kennedys.
He recalled Martin and his stand on death in an interview:
"Although I had often discussed death with Dr. King, as a matter fact one time on NBC when I hosted the Tonight Show, ah, Dr. King was one of the guests. I hosted it for a week and it was quite a week, Bobby Kennedy, Dr. King and, and a lot of political, it was, Dr. King was, he had, he had come late to the show and he said, ah, he said, I'd like you to forgive me for being late, we were on the air, he said, I'd like you to forgive me for being late, he said, because, ah, but, ah, the plane was late and I got to the airport and the driver was trying to get here on time and he was cutting some corners and beating some lights that, ah, that made me say to him, Look, young man, I'd rather be Dr. Martin Luther King late than be the late Dr. Martin Luther King. Could you just drive a little, ah, let's be late." (SOURCE: WUSTL.edu)
U.N. work and Speaking for Prostate cancer survivors
Harry was given opportunities to act in movies, but Sidney Poitier proved to be a more gifted actor. Harry’s forte was music; He was awarded a Grammy in 1960 for his album “Swing Dat Hammer.” Five years later, he was again awarded another Grammy for “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.”
In 1985, Harry helped put together the song “We Are the World,” which earned a Grammy Award and opened doors to humanitarian work. Among his opportunities was one to work with the United Nations by becoming its UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, which he did 1987. President Kennedy [when he was President] named him Cultural Advisor to the Peace Corps, and he later received the “Leader for Peace Award.” He was also awarded the “National Medal of Arts” in 1994 and received a “Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2000.
His involvement in humanitarian work intensified as he got older; he was also involved in the Live Aid concert, which was organized by Bob Geldof.
In 1996, Harry began his prostate awareness advocacy after discovering that he himself had the disease. At the time, he was married to his second wife, Julie Robinson, and had a son named David and a daughter named Gina. His first marriage, to Marguerite Byrd, lasted nine years and produced two daughters, Shari and Adrienne. After 50 years of marriage, Julie and Harry divorced in 2008 and he married Pamela Frank, a photographer, shortly after.
He overcame prostate cancer after undergoing surgery; now, Harry continues to educate people about cancer:
"I remember very early on understanding that cancer was something that was more about women—breast cancer, ovarian cancer. I had a social attitude: Cancer is something they have, we don't get that. I thought that somehow women who had cancer visited upon them were somehow socially responsible for their condition; it must have been something they did or something they did not do. ...If you're going to have it, you're going to have it. It's what you do about it that makes the difference—how you conduct your life..." (SOURCE: Phoenix5)
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Live Aid
- USA for Africa
- Atlanta Opera
- Belafonte Enterprises Inc.
- Civil Rights Movement
- Freedom Rides
- Prostate cancer awareness advocacy
- Advancement Project
- Anti-apartheid Movement
- TransAfrica Forum
- Institute for Policy Studies
- Belafonte Foundation of Music and Art
- Urban Peace Movement
- Circle 1000
- American Indian Empowerment Fund
- HELP USA
- Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 1954: Received a Tony Award for his participation in John Murray Anderson's “Almanac”
- 1956: Calypso became the first LP in the US to sell over one-million copies within one year
- 1956: Calypso reached #4 on Billboard's “Top 100 Album” list
- 1959: Starred in “Tonight With Belafonte,” for which he became the first African-American to win an Emmy Award
- 1960: Received a Grammy award for the album “Swing Dat Hammer”
- 1965: Received a Grammy award for the album “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba”
- 1967: Became the first non-classical artist to perform at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center
- 1985: Helped organize the Grammy Award-winning song “We Are the World”
- 1987: Became a “UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador”
- 1988: Received “Leader for Peace Award” from the Peace Corps
- 1989: Received the Kennedy Center Honors
- 1994: Awarded the “National Medal of Arts”
- 1998: Contributed a letter to Liv Ullmann's book “Letter to My Grandchild”
- 2000: Won a “Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award”
- 2002: “The Long Road to Freedom, An Anthology of Black Music” was nominated for the Grammy Awards for Best Boxed Recording Package, Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album
- 2002: Awarded the “Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award” by Africare
- 2004: Awarded the “Domestic Human Rights Award” by Global Exchange
- 2006: Received the “BET Humanitarian Award”
- 2007: Gave the keynote address at the ACLU of Northern California's annual “Bill of Rights Day Celebration”
- 2007: Awarded the “Chief Justice Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award”
- 2011: Published his memoir, “My Song”
- 2013: Received the NAACP's “Spingarn Medal”
- Earned six Gold Records
- Named Cultural Advisor of the Peace Corps
- Became the first African-American television producer
Wikipedia (Harry Belafonte)
SingYourSongtheMovie.com (Life in Harlem)
African American Registry (Harry Belafonte, an Entertainer of Truth
Web.Archive.org (Calypso World)
Phoenix 5 (Why Harry Belafonte Talks About Prostate Cancer)
The Seattle Times ('Sing Your Song' recounts Harry Belafonte's life)
Art Blogazine (The Work of Harry Belafonte Continues)
The Hollywood Reporter (Harry Belafonte on Capitalism, Media Moguls and His Disappointment With Jay-Z and Beyonce)
WUSTL.edu (Interview With Harry Belafonte)
CNN (Larry King Live: Interview with Harry Belafonte)
Look to the Stars (Harry Belafonte)