Award-winning singer, songwriter, actor, and social activist Harry Belafonte is one year older today. Beginning his celebrated acting and singing career in the 1950s, the man dubbed the “King Of Calypso” was largely responsible for bringing to the world the sounds of Caribbean music. NewsOne takes a look back at one of Black America’s living legends.
Born Harold George Bellanfanti in 1927 to a Jamaican mother and Martiniquan father in the city of Harlem, he lived a short time in Jamaica as a boy. In 1940, Belafonte worked as a janitor in his native New York and eventually found his calling after a neighbor gave him tickets to see a local play.
Meeting fellow actor Sidney Poitier, the pair would scrounge up whatever money they could to study the craft of acting. Landing in a prestigious acting class alongside Hollywood greats such as Marlon Brando and Bea Arthur, he and Poitier would work on their craft at the American Negro Theatre.
Singing was a means for Belafonte to pay for his acting classes, performing in small clubs for sometimes low pay. He worked alongside jazz legends Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Max Roach before becoming enthralled with folk music. His debut single, “Matilda,” was released in 1953 and became one of his signature songs and a mainstay at all his live concerts. Belafonte was also the first artist to have an album sell more than 1 million copies, which his third album “Calypso” did in 1956.
Belafonte’s film career also launched off in 1953, starring opposite Dorothy Dandridge in the film, “Bright Road.” Although strikingly handsome and gifted in his craft, Belafonte grew dissatisfied with the types of roles being offered to him in the 1960s, so he turned his focus back on to music before returning to acting in the early ’70s. He rejoined his former running partner Poitier for two movies at that time. “Buck and the Preacher” and the classic 1974 hit “Uptown Saturday Night,” which showed a different side to the star as he played a tough gangster.
Activism became another facet of the enigmatic Belafonte, who was often critical of former President George W. Bush. Politically active from the early onset of his fame, Belafonte would speak out against injustices in Africa and was an avid and vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. Married twice, Belafonte has four children who also joined him in the entertainment world in varying roles.
Working on more than 30 films in a variety of roles, releasing 29 studio albums, recording eight live concert albums all showcasing a staggering work ethic, Harry Belafonte’s legacy is one worthy of celebrating along with his current rotation around the sun. Still active in his humanitarian and social activism work, Belafonte is a Black American treasure.