Harry Belafonte is an eminent African-American figure in the American entertainment industry. He is a notable singer, lyricist, actor and social activist. Belafonte came to international stardom as “King of Calypso” for his popular Caribbean musical style. He is famous for his composition “The Banana Boat Song”.
Born on March 1, 1927 as Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr., in Harlem, New York, Belafonte’s mother, Melvine, was a housekeeper of Jamaican descent and father, Bellafanti Senior was a Martiniquan chef. He spent his early years in Jamaica with his grandmother. Upon his return to New York City, he received his formal education from George Washington High School. After graduation, he went on to join American Navy so as to serve in the Second World War. During 1940s he was serving a job as a janitor’s assistant in NYC, when he received two tickets for the American Negro Theater from his tenant as gratuity. The experience led to his increasing interest in the art form and his meeting with Sidney Poitier. Being financially unstable the two friends fulfilled their love of art by attending the theatre on a single ticket.
Subsequently, Belafonte went on to attend the Dramatic Workshop of The New School. He took the acting classes alongside with Sidney, the influential German director Erwin Piscator, Bea Arthur and Tony Curtis. Afterwards, he performed with the American Negro Theatre and later garnered a Tony Award for his exquisite work in the Broadway revue, John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. In order to afford his drama class tuition fees, Belafonte took the first step toward his music career as a club singer in New York. At his first performance he was supported by musicians like Miles Davis, Max Roach and Charlie Parker.
Belafonte’s professional music career began as a pop-singer when he recorded for Roost record label in 1949. However, later he became enthusiastic about learning folk music which he accessed through the Library of Congress in the American folk songs archives. He made his debut at a renowned jazz club, The Village Vanguard and shortly after received another contract with a music label. In 1953, Belafonte’s single “Matilda” was released and listened widely. In a brief period, the song became a smashing hit and his signature track. In the following years, his breakthrough album Calypso released to tremendous success. It became the first LP album to sell over a million copies within a year. It secured fourth place on Billboard ’s “Top 100 Album” list after staying at number one for thirty-one weeks.
The secret behind Belafonte’s ultimate success of Calypso, was his introduction of unconventional calypso music to American audience. Some of the songs that are still famous among the contemporaries are “Banana Boat Song” and “Mama Look at Bubu”. Besides, he had recorded in several other genres, including folk, blues, show tunes and gospel. In 1959, he appeared in a television special, Tonight With Belafonte, featuring Odetta. He continued to record for RCA Victor label from fifties to seventies. Moreover, he happened to record to live album at Carnegie Hall and both of which were critically acclaimed.
Harry Belafonte is considered to be the first African American to receive Emmy. H was awarded the Grammy award thrice and a Tony Award. In addition to entertainment, Belafonte had a huge role to play in the Civil Rights Movement of 1950s and held the position of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidants.