HITS Daily Double


Harry Belafonte, the singer, actor and political activist who introduced Americans to Caribbean music, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his home in Manhattan. He was 96.

Belafonte tried his hand at various disciplines after a stint in the Navy, but by the mid-1950s, the Harlem-born son of Jamaican immigrants was parlaying success in music into a film career and fighting for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr.

Trained as an actor—he made his debut at the American Negro Theater—he shifted to music after a promising 1949 run as a singer at The Royal Roost nightclub. He developed a folk act, which led to a contract with RCA and a role on Broadway in the 1953 revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, for which Belafonte won the Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Musical.

He also made his film debut in 1953, in Bright Road. Otto Preminger then cast him in the 1954 movie version of Carmen Jones, an all-Black update of Bizet’s opera Carmen that had been a hit on Broadway in 1944.

It was Belafonte’s third album, 1956’s Calypso, that was his breakthrough, featuring the hits “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” The first album by a solo artist to sell more than a million copies, it spent 31 weeks at #1 and more than 13 months in the Top 10.

Winner of two Grammy Awards in folk categories, Belafonte would record for RCA through 1973, landing 12 albums in the Top 20. He made his last recording, Paradise in Gazankulu, a collection of songs about life under apartheid, in 1988.

He essentially stepped away from his film career in 1960 to focus on music and support the efforts of King, though he would return to the craft in 1970. A key fundraiser for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he was also an important financial supporter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Belafonte famously participated in the March on Washington in 1963, and his apartment on Manhattan's West End Avenue became King’s New York home.

Throughout the 1970s, when his primary work was on the concert stage, Belafonte remained active in politics and charity work; he was a driving force in the cultural boycott of South Africa, the Live Aid concerts and the recording of “We Are the World.” In 1987, he became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. Belafonte founded the human-rights platform Sankofa.org in 2013.

Among the many accolades he received during his extraordinary life were a Kennedy Center Honor (1989), a National Medal of Arts (1994), a Grammy lifetime achievement award (2000) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (2014).