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 few years 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.
Early in his career, he befriended the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and became not just a lifelong friend but also an ardent supporter of Dr. King and the quest for racial equality he personified. He put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He provided money to bail Dr. King and other civil rights activists out of jail. He took part in the March on Washington in 1963. His spacious apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan became Dr. King’s home away from home. And he quietly maintained an insurance policy on Dr. King’s life, with the King family as the beneficiary, and donated his own money to make sure that the family was taken care of after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.
(Nonetheless, in 2013 he sued Dr. King’s three surviving children in a dispute over documents that Mr. Belafonte said were his property and that the children said belonged to the King estate. The suit was settled the next year, with Mr. Belafonte retaining possession.)
In an interview with The Washington Post a few months after Dr. King’s death, Mr. Belafonte expressed ambivalence about his high profile in the civil rights movement. He would like to “be able to stop answering questions as though I were a spokesman for my people,” he said, adding, “I hate marching, and getting called at 3 a.m. to bail some cats out of jail.” But, he said, he accepted his role.
The Challenge of Racism
In the same interview, he noted ruefully that although he sang music with “roots in the Black culture of American Negroes, Africa and the West Indies,” most of his fans were white. As frustrating as that may have been, he was much more upset by the racism that he confronted even at the height of his fame.
His role in the 1957 movie “Island in the Sun,” which contained the suggestion of a romance between his character and a white woman played by Joan Fontaine, generated outrage in the South; a bill was even introduced in the South Carolina Legislature that would have fined any theater showing the film. In Atlanta for a benefit concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1962, Mr. Belafonte was twice refused service in the same restaurant. Television appearances with white female singers — Petula Clark in 1968, Julie Andrews in 1969 — angered many viewers and, in the case of Ms. Clark, threatened to cost him a sponsor.
He sometimes drew criticism from Black people, including the suggestion early in his career that he owed his success to the lightness of his skin (his paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother were white). When he divorced his wife in 1957 and married Julie Robinson, who had been the only white member of Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe, The Amsterdam News wrote, “Many Negroes are wondering why a man who has waved the flag of justice for his race should turn from a Negro wife to a white wife.”
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.
“Purism is the best cover-up for mediocrity,” he told The New York Times in 1959. “If there is no change we might just as well go back to the first ‘ugh,’ which must have been the first song.”
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.
Awakening to Black History
Mr. Belafonte dropped out of George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan in 1944 and enlisted in the Navy, where he was assigned to load munitions aboard ships. Black shipmates introduced him to the works of W.E.B. Du Bois and other African American authors and urged him to study Black history.
He received further encouragement from Marguerite Byrd, the daughter of a middle-class Washington family, whom he met while he was stationed in Virginia and she was studying psychology at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). They married in 1948.
He and Ms. Byrd had two children, Adrienne Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte, who survive him, as do his two children by Ms. Robinson, Gina Belafonte and David; and eight grandchildren. He and Ms. Robinson divorced in 2004, and he married Pamela Frank, a photographer, in 2008, and she survives him, too, along with a stepdaughter, Sarah Frank; a stepson, Lindsey Frank; and three step-grandchildren.
Back in New York after his discharge, Mr. Belafonte became interested in acting and enrolled under the G.I. Bill at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop, where his classmates included Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis. He first took the stage at the American Negro Theater in Manhattan, where he worked as a stagehand and where he began his lifelong friendship with a fellow theatrical novice, Sidney Poitier.
Finding anything other than what he called “Uncle Tom” roles proved difficult, and even though singing was little more than a hobby, it was as a singer and not an actor that Mr. Belafonte found an audience.
Early in 1949, he was given the chance to perform during intermissions for two weeks at the Royal Roost, a popular Midtown jazz nightclub. He was an immediate hit, and the two weeks became five months.
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.
A triumphant 1951 engagement at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village led to an even more successful one at the Blue Angel, the Vanguard’s upscale sister room on the Upper East Side. That in turn led to a recording contract with RCA and a role on Broadway in the 1953 revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.”
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.
Mr. Belafonte’s co-star was Dorothy Dandridge, with whom he had also appeared the year before in his first movie, the little-seen low-budget drama “Bright Road.” Although they were both accomplished vocalists, their singing voices in “Carmen Jones” were dubbed by opera singers.
Mr. Belafonte also made news for a movie he turned down, citing what he called its negative racial stereotypes: the 1959 screen version of “Porgy and Bess,” also a Preminger film. The role of Porgy was offered instead to his old friend Mr. Poitier, whom he criticized publicly for accepting it.
Stepping Away From Film
In the 1960s, as Mr. Poitier became a major box-office attraction, Mr. Belafonte made no movies at all: Hollywood, he said, was not interested in the socially conscious films he wanted to make, and he was not interested in the roles he was offered. He did, however, become a familiar presence — and an occasional source of controversy — on television.
His special “Tonight With Belafonte” won an Emmy in 1960 (a first for a Black performer), but a deal to do five more specials for that show’s sponsor, the cosmetics company Revlon, fell apart after one more was broadcast; according to Mr. Belafonte, Revlon asked him not to feature Black and white performers together. The taping of a 1968 special with Petula Clark was interrupted when Ms. Clark touched Mr. Belafonte’s arm, and a representative of the sponsor, Chrysler-Plymouth, demanded a retake. (The producer refused, and the sponsor’s representative later apologized, although Mr. Belafonte said the apology came “one hundred years too late.”)
When Mr. Belafonte returned to film as both producer and co-star, with Zero Mostel, of “The Angel Levine” (1970), based on a story by Bernard Malamud, the project had a sociopolitical edge: His Harry Belafonte Enterprises, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, hired 15 Black and Hispanic apprentices to learn filmmaking by working on the crew. One of them, Drake Walker, wrote the story for Mr. Belafonte’s next movie, “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), a gritty western that also starred Mr. Poitier.
But after appearing as a mob boss (a parody of Marlon Brando’s character in “The Godfather”) with Mr. Poitier and Bill Cosby in the hit 1974 comedy “Uptown Saturday Night” — directed, as “Buck and the Preacher” had been, by Mr. Poitier — Mr. Belafonte was once again absent from the big screen, this time until 1992, when he played himself in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire “The Player.”
He appeared onscreen only sporadically after that, most notably as a gangster in Mr. Altman’s “Kansas City” (1996), for which Mr. Belafonte won a New York Film Critics Circle Award. His final film role was in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” in 2018.
Mr. Belafonte continued to give concerts in the years when he was off the screen, but he concentrated on political activism and charitable work. In the 1980s, he helped organize a cultural boycott of South Africa as well as the Live Aid concert and the all-star recording “We Are the World,” both of which raised money to fight famine in Africa. In 1986, encouraged by some New York State Democratic Party leaders, he briefly considered running for the United States Senate. In 1987, he replaced Danny Kaye as UNICEF’s good-will ambassador.
Never shy about expressing his opinion, he became increasingly outspoken during the George W. Bush administration. In 2002, he accused Secretary of State Colin L. Powell of abandoning his principles to “come into the house of the master.” Four years later he called Mr. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.”
Mr. Belafonte was equally outspoken in the 2013 New York mayoral election, in which he campaigned for the Democratic candidate and eventual winner, Bill de Blasio. During the campaign he referred to the Koch brothers, the wealthy industrialists known for their support of conservative causes, as “white supremacists” and compared them to the Ku Klux Klan. (Mr. de Blasio quickly distanced himself from that comment.)
Such statements made Mr. Belafonte a frequent target of criticism, but no one disputed his artistry. Among the many honors he received in his later years were a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994 and a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2000.
In 2011, he was the subject of a documentary film, “Sing Your Song,” and published his autobiography, “My Song.”
In 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in recognition of his lifelong fight for civil rights and other causes. The honor, he told The Times, gave him “a strong sense of reward.”
He remained politically active to the end. On Election Day 2016, The Times published an opinion article by Mr. Belafonte urging people not to vote for Donald J. Trump, whom he called “feckless and immature.”
“Mr. Trump asks us what we have to lose,” he wrote, referring to African American voters, “and we must answer: Only the dream, only everything.”
Four years later, he returned to the opinion pages with a similar message: “We have learned exactly how much we had to lose — a lesson that has been inflicted upon Black people again and again in our history — and we will not be bought off by the empty promises of the flimflam man.”
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.”
Richard Severo and Alex Traub contributed reporting.
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