Award-winning singer and actor Harry Belafonte passed away at his home in New York City on Tuesday. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to his publicist.
He was born to Jamaican immigrant parents in 1927, with the Harlem hospital recording his name as Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. After a childhood in Jamaica, he returned to the US and enlisted in the navy, serving for two years during WWII. Working as a janitor, he was introduced to the American Negro Theater in Harlem. There, he struck a friendship with future Hollywood star Sidney Poitier and started taking acting lessons.
To pay for his education, Belafonte started singing in New York clubs. He recorded his first single, ‘Matilda’, in 1953. His big break came in 1956, with the LP album ‘Calypso’ that included hits such as ‘Jump in the Line’ and ‘Day-O’ (also known as ‘The Banana Boat Song’). Belafonte would later say it was the first album in the world to sell over a million copies in a year.
The following year, Belafonte recorded ‘Island in the Sun’, which would become another of his signature songs. He also performed on Broadway and had a long film career, ranging from 1953’s ‘Bright Road’ alongside Dorothy Dandridge to Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’, in 2018.
Belafonte was one of the performers at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala in 1961. For a week in February 1968, he guest-hosted The Tonight Show as a stand-in for Johnny Carson, interviewing Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
His last hit single, ‘A Strange Song’, had been released the year prior. Belafonte would record his final calypso album in 1971, before taking his act on the road. He also engaged in civil rights activism, inspired by his friendship with King and singer Paul Robeson. In a 2011 memoir, Belafonte described Robeson as his “first great formative influence; you might say he gave me my backbone. Martin King was the second; he nourished my soul.”
In 1988, Belafonte released the first album with original material in years.‘Paradise in Gazankulu’ was a collection of protest songs against South African apartheid.
Belafonte won a Tony Award for his 1954 role in the Broadway musical ‘John Murray Anderson’s Almanac’. In 1960, he became the first black actor to win an Emmy, for a TV variety special. He has also won three Grammy awards, including one for lifetime achievement, and a National Medal of Arts. His last-ever concert was in October 2003.
He is survived by his third wife, Pamela Frank, and four children: Shari, David, Adrienne, and Gina. Shari, born in 1954, followed in her father’s footsteps and became a model, singer, actress and writer.