Harry Belafonte, Crossover Icon & Political Activist, Dies @ 96

April 25, 2023

The ultimate stage star (Image via head shot)

The loss of Harry Belafonte at 96 is truly the loss of a great figure, not only in entertainment — where his supremacy was the stuff of legend — but also in the field of social justice and civil rights.

The Jamaican-American "King of Calypso" died Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at his Manhattan home of congestive heart failure. His third wife, photographer Pamela Frank, was at his side, ExtraTV reports.

Belafonte was born March 1, 1927, in NYC, and lived for some of his formative years in Jamaica.

Returning to the U.S., he served in the Navy and studied acting at the Actors Studio alongside such fellow legends as Marlon Brando (1924-2004) and Tony Curtis (1925-2010). He credited his work in Juno and the Paycock for the American Negro Theatre with igniting his love of acting, and between the late '40s and early '50s, he was on a dizzying fast track to a level of fame rarely achieved by Black men of his era.

One million music fans can't be wrong! (Image via RCA)

Belafonte was, from early on, a dynamo onstage. He performed at the Village Vanguard and landed a recording contract with RCA, releasing his first album by 1954. A sell-out across the country, his third album, Calypso (1956), became the first LP to sell 1 million units in the U.S Its lead single, "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)," quickly became a defining smash, one that was recently chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress for its cultural merits.

Belafonte recorded calypso, folk, jazz, pop, and would go on to release 27 studio albums, seven live sets and eight compilations. His U.S. hit singles, aside from the no. 5 hit "Day-O," were "Gomen Nasai (Forgive Me" (1953), "Jamaica Farewell" (1956), "Mary's Boy Child" (1956), "Hold 'Em Joe" (1957), "Mama Look a Boo Boo" (1957), "Don't Ever Love Me" (1957), "Coconut Woman" (1957) and "Island in the Sun" (1957).

Belafonte & Dandridge in Carmen Jones (Image via 20th Century Fox)

He launched a movie career with 1953's Bright Road opposite Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965). He worked with Dandridge again in the classic hit Carmen Jones (1954) and Island in the Sun (1957), in which Joan Fontaine (1917-2013) played a rich white woman pursuing his labor-union character sexually. Interracial romance was a hot potato on-screen, and off-screen he was having an affair with co-star Joan Collins (b. 1933).

Buck-ing around (Image via Columbia)

Other films included The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Buck and the Preacher (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), The Player (1992), Ready to Wear (1994), Kansas City (1996), Bobby (2006) and a mesmerizing speech in BlacKkKlansman (2018).


Harry Belafonte RIP! Here, 1 of the Best Muppets Performances EVER #harrybelafonte

♬ original sound - Matthew Rettenmund/BoyCulture

Belafonte was a major force on TV, as well, where he won an Emmy for Revlon Revue: Tonight with Harry Belafonte (1959), guest-hosted The Tonight Show in 1968, and gave iconic performances on The Muppet Show (1978).


Harry Belafonte & Petula Clark: This Contact Was Scandalous in 1968 harrybelafonte petulaclark

♬ original sound - Matthew Rettenmund/BoyCulture

Most sensationally, Belafonte appeared on Petula Clark's (b. 1932) first special, Petula, in 1968, on which she briefly clutched his arm as they sang a duet on "On the Path of Glory," an anti-war song. The interracial contact upset an employee of the show's sponsor, Chrysler, but Clark refused to cut it. Instead, the employee was cut and the special — which aired days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) — was a critically acclaimed hit.

Known for his civil rights work and devotion to humanitarian causes, Belafonte was remembered at ExtraTV in this vein:

Belafonte performed at John F. Kennedy's inaugural gala in 1961 ...

His involvement humanitarian efforts were tireless, and included — but were not limited to — work as an advisor to the Peace Corps, working with the ACLU, financially supporting Martin Luther King Jr.'s family and bailing him out of jail, contributing to the 1961 Freedom Rides, working on voting rights, helping to organize the history-making 1963 March on Washington, campaigning for HIV/AIDS relief, protesting the Iraq War, being named Grand Marshal of NYC's LGBT Pride Parade, and serving as honorary co-chair of the 2017 Women's March.

Belafonte worked intimately with USA for Africa in the '80s, singing on the no. 1 hit "We Are the World," and created 1986's Hands Across America to fight poverty at home.

He was an EGOT (though his Oscar was a noncompetitive Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award), a best-selling memoirist, a Kennedy Center Honoree, a recipient of France's Order of the Legion of Honor and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence on the medium.

Belafonte was married three times, his first two marriages ended in divorce, including his second marriage, which was to dancer Julie Robinson, to whom he was wed for nearly 50 years. He was survived by his third wife, to whom he was wed in 2008; by his four children, including noted actress Shari Belafonte (b. 1954); by his two stepchildren; and by his eight grandchildren.

Belafonte nearly stole BlacKkKlansman with his speech about a lynching. (Image via Focus Features)

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