Harry Belafonte started his life in Harlem, but was sent to live with his grandmother in Jamaica at the age of 5. He returned to New York in time to start high school, and then served in the Navy during the Second World War. After the war, a night at the American Negro Theater inspired Harry to try his hand at acting. He and fellow starving artist Sidney Poitier would buy one ticket to a play and share it, the first friend coming out during intermission to pass the ticket on to the other friend, filling him in on the story up to that point.
Belafonte first started singing in clubs just to make money for acting lessons. In a Forrest Gump-sized coincidence, his 1949 singing debut was backed by Charlie Parker and his band, which included Max Roach and Miles Davis at the time. Stage and club work continued apace, until his first album—Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites—was recorded in 1954. It was a collection of American folk songs, including this rendition of “John Henry.”
Two years later, Calypso was released. On the strength of the “Banana Boat Song” (a.k.a. “Day-O”) the album would become the very first American release to sell more than a million copies in its first year. For those of us of a certain age, the song is best remembered for its appearance in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.
Belafonte’s ease in front of the camera (and respectable drum skills) can be seen in this playful version of “Mama Look a Boo Boo” on the Nat King Cole Show, in 1957.
By 1958, Belafonte was ready to show the world that he could sing in other musical styles; hence, Belafonte Sings the Blues.
“In the Evenin’ Mama” is impassioned and raw, though to these ears, he lays it on a little thick. See what you think.
His cover of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” on the other hand, is a laid-back delight.
Harry’s musical success fed his cinematic success. He starred alongside Dorothy Dandridge in Bright Road and Carmen Jones, in which his voice was inexcusably overdubbed by an opera singer. He chose roles that defied 1950’s racial convention in films like Island In the Sun, Odds Against Tomorrow, and The World, The Flesh and the Devil. He turned down the role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess because he thought the part was demeaning.
Harry worked with a lot of interesting people in his musical career. He performed with Odetta in a 1959 television special, and with Miriam Makeba in 1965. Frank Sinatra chose him to perform at Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball. And while recording 1962’s Midnight Special, Bellafonte gave a break to an aspiring harmonica player named Bob Dylan. Here he is performing with Greek singer/intellectual sex symbol/woman of the world Nana Mouskori.
Like all celebrities worth their salt in the 1970’s, Harry wasn’t too proud to appear on The Muppet Show. While there he sang “The Banana Boat Song” on television for the very first time. He also sang “Turn the World Around,” complete with Muppet-fied African masks.
Jim Henson would later say that this was his favorite episode of the show. Harry returned the compliment by singing “Turn the World Around” at Henson’s memorial service in 1990.
Belafonte retired from performing in 2003. He remains an outspoken political and cultural critic, taking on everyone from Colin Powell George W. Bush to Jay-Z. His critiques can sometimes be seen as strident, but the man has been a cultural ambassador to the Peace Corps, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, and a huge player in the 1960’s civil rights movement—he used his own money to bankroll the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and to bail Dr. King out of jail in Birmingham. For that alone, Harry Belafonte deserves our respect.