Entertainer and Civil Rights Activist Harry Belafonte Dies
“King of Calypso”
“Day-o, day-o, Daylight come, and we want go home”
Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr.
March 1, 1927 – April 25, 2023
Singer, actor Harry Belafonte died on April 25, 2023 from congestive heart failure at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City, at the age of 96.
He was born Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr. on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York City, the son of Jamaican-born parents Harold George Bellanfanti, Sr., who worked as a chef, and Melvine Love, a housekeeper. His mother was the child of a Scottish Jamaican mother and an Afro-Jamaican father, and his father was the child of an Afro-Jamaican mother and a Dutch-Jewish father of Sephardic Jewish descent. Harry, Jr. was raised Catholic.
He joined the United States Navy and served during World War II. In the 1940s, he was working as a janitor’s assistant when a tenant gave him, as a gratuity, two tickets to see the American Negro Theater. He fell in love with the art form and also befriended Sidney Poitier. Both Belafonte and Poitier regularly purchased a single seat to local plays, trading places in between acts, after informing the other about the progression of the play.
At the end of the 1940s, Belafonte took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City with the influential German director Erwin Piscator alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, and Poitier, while performing with the American Negro Theater.
Belafonte brought calypso music to the forefront with international audiences in the 1950s. Belafonte was best known for his recordings of “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora),” “Jamaica Farewell,” and “Mary’s Boy Child.” He earned his career breakthrough with the album Calypso (1956), which was the first million-selling LP by a single artist. He co-starred in Carmen Jones (1954) with Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey. He also starred in Island in the Sun (1957), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Buck and the Preacher (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018). He received an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (EGOT).
Belafonte and his friends, including Poitier, were known for their support of the Civil Rights Movement, integration and equal opportunities for minorities. He and his folk song troupes often performed throughout the country in support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and other Civil Rights organizations. Belafonte participated in early Civil Rights meetings with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ambassador Andrew Young and other leaders. He worked with Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, trying to be an agent of positive change. Belafonte helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington.
Belafonte was married three times, to Marguerite Byrd, Julie Robinson and Pamela Frank. His children include Shari Belafonte, Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, David Belafonte and Gina Belafonte.
Last updated on April 27, 2023