Harry Belafonte Biography

Harold George Belafonte Jnr., 1 March 1927, Harlem, New York City, New York, USA. In recent years, the former ‘King Of Calypso’ has become better known for his work with UNICEF and his enterprise with the charity organization USA For Africa. Prior to that, Belafonte had an extraordinarily varied life. His early career was spent as an actor, until he had time to demonstrate his silky smooth and gently relaxing singing voice. He appeared as Joe in Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones; an adaptation of Carmen by Bizet, and in 1956 he was snapped up by RCA - Victor Records. Belafonte was then at the forefront of the calypso craze, which was a perfect vehicle for his happy-go-lucky folk songs. Early hits included ‘Jamaica Farewell’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ and the classic transatlantic hit ‘Banana Boat Song’ with its unforgettable refrain: ‘Day-oh, dayyy-oh, daylight come and me wanna go home’. Calypso became the first ever album to sell a million copies, and spent 31 weeks at the top of the US charts. Belafonte continued throughout the 50s with incredible success. He was able to cross over into many markets appealing to pop, folk and jazz fans, as well as to the ethnic population with whom he became closely associated, particularly during the civil rights movement. He appeared in many movies including Island In The Sun, singing the title song, and Odds Against Tomorrow. His success as an album artist was considerable; between 1956 and 1962 he was hardly ever absent from the album chart. Belafonte At Carnegie Hall spent over three years in the charts, and similar success befell Belafonte Returns To Carnegie Hall, featuring Miriam Makeba, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Odetta, with a memorable recording of ‘There’s A Hole In My Bucket’.

Throughout the 60s Belafonte was an ambassador of human rights and a most articulate speaker at rallies and on television. His appeal as a concert hall attraction was immense; no less than seven of his albums were recorded in concert. Although his appearances in the bestseller lists had stopped by the 70s he remained an active performer and recording artist, and continued to appear on film, although in lightweight movies such as Buck And The Preacher and Uptown Saturday Night. In the mid-80s he was a leading light in the USA For Africa appeal and sang on ‘We Are The World’. His sterling work continued into the 90s with UNICEF. Belafonte was one of the few black artists who broke down barriers of class and race, and should be counted alongside Dr. Martin Luther King as a major figure in achieving equal rights for blacks in America through his work in popular music. He researched and produced an impressive box set of early African recordings in 2001: The Long Road To Freedom: An Anthology Of Black Music proved to be another landmark in an impressive career.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.