Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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BELAFONTE, Harry

(b Harold George Belafonte, 1 March 1927, NYC) Singer, actor, producer. Spent five years in Jamaica, back to NYC age 13; served in US Navy loading ships with ammo: officers would be shouting at each other, 'My niggers can load faster than yours!' He attended drama workshops, met Sidney Poitier at the American Negro Theater in Harlem, Marlon Brando at Max Reinhardt's acting school, meanwhile wrapped packages in the garment district. Film Bright Road and Broadway's Almanac (including singing) both appeared in 1953; he played the lead in stage and film versions of Oscar Hammerstein's musical Carmen Jones '54, and toured in revue Three For The Road the same year. He tried pop singing, ran a restaurant in Greenwich Village, discovered folk music and had a 22-week engagement at Village Vanguard. Signed by RCA '55, his singles 'Scarlet Ribbons' and 'Shenandoah' attracted attention; first album 'Mark Twain' And Other Folk Favorites was no. 3 in the U.S. album chart, his second Belafonte no. 1, both early '56; the third Calypso '56 was the first album to sell a million copies (by '59): no. 1 in U.S. album chart for 31 weeks, including '57's hit singles 'Jamaica Farewell' and 'Banana Boat Song' (aka 'Day-O', 'Star-O'). Other smash hits in '57 included album Belafonte Sings Of The Caribbean and singles 'Mama Looka Boo Boo' (written by Lord Melody, b Fitzroy Alexander, 1925-88) and Xmas song 'Mary's Boy Child' from the album An Evening With Belafonte. A two-disc set Belafonte At Carnegie Hall ('59) also sold a million.

He was a natural success on TV from '55, appearing on all the talk and variety shows and producing his own shows in the '60s. He also recorded with Odetta (single 'Hole In The Bucket' charted in the UK '61), Lena Horne (Porgy And Bess '59), Miriam Makeba '65, Nana Mouskouri '66. Altogether 24 of his albums charted '56-70 on RCA, nine in the top ten. Other films included Island In The Sun '57 (controversial at the time for its interracial theme), The World, The Flesh And The Devil '57 and Odds Against Tomorrow '59. He was active in the civil rights movement, a director of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, etc; produced Lorraine Hansberry's To Be Young, Gifted And Black in NYC '69; he won many awards and honorary degrees. More films: spoof western Buck And The Preacher '72 with Poitier; Uptown Saturday Night '74 with all-star cast of black comics. He signed with CBS for albums such as Turn The World Around '77 and Loving You Is Where I Belong '81 but his recording career was running down. A successful businessman, he toyed with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate from NY '86, succeeded Danny Kaye as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund, hosted a concert in London's Wembley Stadium '88 celebrating Nelson Mandela's birthday, and produced BBC/HBO film The Affair '95 about a wartime interracial romance. He planned a Mandela biopic starring Poitier but it didn't happen.