Singer, Actor, & Activist Harry Belafonte Passes Away at 96
The groundbreaking singer and actor who became a well-loved civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte has passed away, his publicist confirmed to CBS News. He was 96.
According to reports, Belafonte died Tuesday morning of congestive heart failure.
Belafonte was dubbed the “King of Calypso” after the groundbreaking success of his 1956 hit, “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” He also became a movie star after acting in the film adaption of the Broadway musical, “Carmen Jones.”
He started his career in music as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. The first time he appeared in front of an audience, he was backed by the Charlie Parker band, which included Charlie Parker himself, Max Roach and Miles Davis, among others. He launched his recording career as a pop singer on the Roost label in 1949, but quickly developed a keen interest in folk music, learning material through the Library of Congress’ American folk songs archives. With guitarist and friend Millard Thomas, Belafonte soon made his debut at the legendary jazz club The Village Vanguard. He signed a contract with RCA Victor in 1953, recording regularly for the label until 1974.
Belafonte also performed during the Rat Pack era in Las Vegas. He and associated acts such as Liberace, Ray Vasquez, and Sammy Davis Jr. were featured at the Sands Hotel and Casino and the Dunes Hotel.
Belafonte became one of the first Black leading men in Hollywood. He later branched into production work on theatrical films and telepics.
Even though he was a handsome actor with a smooth singing voice, Belafonte’s biggest contributions took place offstage. He was a key component of the civil rights movement. He continually risked his career, reputation, and his life – for his activism.
He became a close friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who often called on Belafonte to talk strategy or escape the pressures of leading the civil rights movement.
Belafonte’s political consciousness was shaped by the experience of growing up as the impoverished son of a poor Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant.
“I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’ ” he once said. “My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first.”
One of Belafonte’s other biggest role models was the singer and activist Paul Roberson.
“He said, artists are the gatekeepers of truth. He said only through the world of the arts do we know who and what we are in the history of civilization,” Belafonte told CBS News. “Long before historians. Long before people ascribe themselves as the caretakers of life and culture. The song did that, and in the black community, it was our primary tool of communication. So I saw the song as having something far more than something to delight audiences and people could dance and sing. It had content, and I began to see this content of black protest music.”
Belafonte received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989.