Harold George "Harry" Belafonte, Jr. (born March 1, 1927) is an American singer, songwriter, actor and social activist. He was dubbed the "King of Calypso" for popularizing the Caribbean musical style with an international audience in the 1950s. Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing "The Banana Boat Song", with its signature lyric "Day-O". Throughout his career he has been an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes.
Belafonte started his career in music as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. The first time he appeared in front of an audience, he was backed by the Charlie Parker band, which included Charlie Parker himself, Max Roach and Miles Davis, among others. At first he was a pop singer, launching his recording career on the Roost label in 1949, but later he developed a keen interest in folk music, learning material through the Library of Congress' American folk songs archives. With guitarist and friend Millard Thomas, Belafonte soon made his debut at the legendary jazz club The Village Vanguard. In 1952 he received a contract with RCA Victor.
His first widely-releasedsingle, which went on to become his "signature" song with audience participation in virtually all his live performances, was "Matilda", recorded April 27, 1953. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) became the first LP in the US "to sell over 1 million copies within a year," Belafonte said on the Canadian Broadcasting Company's The Link program on August 7, 2012. He added that it was also the first million-selling album ever in England. The album is 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. The album introduced American audiences to Calypso music (which had originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the early 20th century), and Belafonte was dubbed the "King of Calypso".
While primarily known for Calypso, Belafonte has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards. His second-most popular hit, which came immediately after "The Banana Boat Song", was the comedic tune "Mama Look at Bubu", also known as "Mama Look a Boo-Boo" (originally recorded by Lord Melody in 1956), in which he sings humorously about misbehaving and disrespectful children. It reached number eleven on the pop chart.
In 1959 he starred in Tonight With Belafonte, a nationally televised special that featured Odetta, who sang "Water Boy" and who performed a duet with Belafonte of '"There's a Hole in My Bucket" that hit the national charts in 1961. Belafonte continued to record for RCA through the 1950s to the 1970s. Two live albums, both recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1959 and 1960, enjoyed critical and commercial success. From his 1959 album, Hava Nagila became part of his regular routine and one of his signature songs. He was one of many entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the inaugural gala of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. That same year he released his second calypso album, Jump Up Calypso, which went on to become another million seller. During the 1960s he introduced several artists to American audiences, most notably South African singer Miriam Makeba and Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. His album Midnight Special (1962) featured the first-ever record appearance by a then young harmonica player named Bob Dylan.
Each Christmas season, Belafonte can be heard on songs which have become traditional standards, namely "Mary's Boy Child" and "The Baby Boy". As The Beatles and other stars from Britain began to dominate the U.S. pop charts, Belafonte's commercial success diminished; 1964's Belafonte at The Greek Theatre was his last album to appear in Billboard's Top 40. His last hit single, "A Strange Song", was released in 1967 and peaked at number 5 on the Adult contemporary music charts. Belafonte has received Grammy Awards for the albums Swing Dat Hammer (1960) and An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965). He earned six Gold Records.
Belafonte was the first African American to win an Emmy, with his first solo TV special Tonight with Belafonte (1959). During the 1960s he appeared on TV specials alongside such artists as Julie Andrews, Petula Clark, Lena Horne and Nana Mouskouri. He was also a guest star on a memorable episode of The Muppet Show in 1978, in which he performed his signature song "Day-O" on television for the first time. The episode is best known for Belafonte's rendition of the spiritual song, "Turn the World Around", which he performed with Muppets that resembled African tribal masks. It became one of the series' most famous performances. It was reportedly Jim Henson's favorite episode, and Belafonte reprised the song at Henson's memorial in 1990. "Turn the World Around" was also included in the 2005 official hymnal supplement of the Unitarian Universalist Association, "Singing the Journey."
He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994 and he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. He performed sold-out concerts globally through the 1950s to the 2000s. Owing to illness, he was forced to cancel a reunion tour with Nana Mouskouri planned for the spring and summer of 2003 following a tour in Europe. His last concert was a benefit concert for the Atlanta Opera on October 25, 2003. In a 2007 interview he stated that he had since retired from performing.
It should be noted that almost unanimously, concert-goers have said that Harry Belafonte was able to hold any audience of any age spellbound. And that is indeed a great tribute to this performer.
SOME SPECIAL BELAFONTE MOMENTS:
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