Peter Keepnews reports on the life of Harry Belafonte (1927-2023)—whose father was Martinican, and mother was Jamaican—died on April 25, 2023. He writes, “In the 1950s, when segregation was still widespread, his ascent to the upper echelon of show business was historic. But his primary focus was civil rights.” Read the full article at The New York Times.
Harry Belafonte, who stormed the pop charts and smashed racial barriers in the 1950s with his highly personal brand of folk music, and who went on to become a dynamic force in the civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 96.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Ken Sunshine, his longtime spokesman.
At a time when segregation was still widespread and Black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, Mr. Belafonte’s ascent to the upper echelon of show business was historic. He was not the first Black entertainer to transcend racial boundaries; Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and others had achieved stardom before him. But none had made as much of a splash as he did, and for a while no one in music, Black or white, was bigger.
Born in Harlem to West Indian immigrants, he almost single-handedly ignited a craze for Caribbean music with hit records like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” His album “Calypso,” which included both those songs, reached the top of the Billboard album chart shortly after its release in 1956 and stayed there for 31 weeks. Coming just before the breakthrough of Elvis Presley, it was said to be the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies.
Mr. Belafonte was equally successful as a concert attraction: Handsome and charismatic, he held audiences spellbound with dramatic interpretations of a repertoire that encompassed folk traditions from all over the world — rollicking calypsos like “Matilda,” work songs like “Lead Man Holler,” tender ballads like “Scarlet Ribbons.” By 1959 he was the most highly paid Black performer in history, with fat contracts for appearances in Las Vegas, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and at the Palace in New York.
Success as a singer led to movie offers, and Mr. Belafonte soon became the first Black actor to achieve major success in Hollywood as a leading man. His movie stardom was short-lived, though, and it was his friendly rival Sidney Poitier, not Mr. Belafonte, who became the first bona fide Black matinee idol.
But making movies was never Mr. Belafonte’s priority, and after a while neither was making music. He continued to perform into the 21st century, and to appear in movies as well (although he had two long hiatuses from the screen), but his primary focus from the late 1950s on was civil rights. [. . .]
[Photo above by Bob Henriques/Magnum Photos. Harry Belafonte was not the first Black entertainer to transcend racial boundaries, but none had made as much of a splash as he did. For a few years no one in music, Black or white, was bigger. Above, the singer in 1957.]
When RCA Victor, his record company, promoted him as the “King of Calypso,” Mr. Belafonte was denounced as a pretender in Trinidad, the acknowledged birthplace of that highly rhythmic music, where an annual competition is held to choose a calypso king.
He himself never claimed to be a purist when it came to calypso or any of the other traditional styles he embraced, let alone the king of calypso. He and his songwriting collaborators loved folk music, he said, but saw nothing wrong with shaping it to their own ends. [. . .]
Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. was born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem. His father, who was born in Martinique (and later changed the family name), worked occasionally as a chef on merchant ships and was often away; his mother, Melvine (Love) Bellanfanti, born in Jamaica, was a domestic.
In 1936, Harry, his mother and his younger brother, Dennis, moved to Jamaica. Unable to find work there, his mother soon returned to New York, leaving him and his brother to be looked after by relatives who, he later recalled, were either “unemployed or above the law.” They rejoined her in Harlem in 1940. [. . .]
Finding Folk Music
After enjoying some success but little creative satisfaction as a jazz-oriented pop singer, Mr. Belafonte looked elsewhere for inspiration. With the guitarist Millard Thomas, who would become his accompanist, and the playwright and novelist William Attaway, who would collaborate on many of his songs, he immersed himself in the study of folk music. (The calypso singer and songwriter Irving Burgie later supplied much of his repertoire, including “Day-O” and “Jamaica Farewell.”)
His manager, Jack Rollins, helped him develop an act that emphasized his acting ability and his striking good looks as much as a voice that was husky and expressive but, as Mr. Belafonte admitted, not very powerful. [. . .]
Performing a repertoire that included the calypso standard “Hold ’em Joe” and his arrangement of the folk song “Mark Twain,” Mr. Belafonte won enthusiastic reviews, television bookings and a Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical. He also caught the eye of the Hollywood producer and director Otto Preminger, who cast him in the 1954 movie version of “Carmen Jones,” an all-Black update of Bizet’s opera “Carmen” with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, which had been a hit on Broadway a decade earlier. [. . .]
Looking back on his life and career, Mr. Belafonte was proud but far from complacent. “About my own life, I have no complaints,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago.”
For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/25/arts/music/harry-belafonte-dead.html
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