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Linking Young Minds Together
     Volume 2 Issue 8 | March 04, 2007|


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Memorable Music

Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte is an African-American entertainer and producer who brought Jamaica's calypso beat to mainstream audiences and then used his fame to fight against racial and social inequality. He grew up in both Jamaica and the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. After serving in World War II, Belafonte set out to have a career in the theater in New York. His silky voice soon earned him a recording contract, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s he was a popular New York club performer and sometime television star. In 1953 he made his movie debut and turned in a Tony Award-winning performance in John Murray Anderson's Almanac. His version of "The Banana Boat Song" was a hit and started a brief calypso beat craze -- it was also the first million-selling album. One of the first African-American producers in television, Belafonte won an Emmy for 1959's Tonight with Belafonte and was a frequent guest on television variety shows throughout the 1960s and '70s. In addition to a long, successful singing and producing career, Belafonte is well-known as an advocate for human rights and has received awards from the Peace Corps and UNICEF. His film career includes Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957), Buck and the Preacher (1972, with Sidney Poitier) and Kansas City (1996).

"The Banana Boat Song" was co-written by actor Alan Arkin... Belafonte studied drama in New York in the same class of young actors as Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Walter Matthau... His daughter, Shari Belafonte, is a model and actress (she starred in the 1980s TV series Hotel)... Belafonte produced the song, "We Are the World," a hit that aided charity in 1985... In 1968 Belafonte and singer Petula Clark were at the center of a controversy because during the taping of her television special she briefly touched his arm during a duet. TV sponsors thought viewers -- especially in the American southeast -- would respond negatively to a white woman touching a black man. Clark and Belafonte stood their ground and the special was aired as originally recorded; the controversy only guaranteed a wider audience.

An actor, humanitarian, and the acknowledged "King of Calypso," Harry Belafonte ranked among the most seminal performers of the postwar era. One of the most successful African-American pop stars in history, Belafonte's staggering talent, good looks, and masterful assimilation of folk, jazz, and worldbeat rhythms allowed him to achieve a level of mainstream eminence and crossover popularity virtually unparalleled in the days before the advent of the civil rights movement -- a cultural uprising which he himself helped spearhead.Harold George Belafonte, Jr., was born March 1, 1927, in Harlem, NY. The son of Caribbean-born immigrants, he returned with his mother to her native Jamaica at the age of eight, remaining there for the next five years. Upon returning to the U.S., Belafonte dropped out of high school to enlist in the U.S. Navy; after his discharge, he resettled in New York City to forge a career as an actor, performing with the American Negro Theatre while studying drama at Erwin Piscator's famed Dramatic Workshop alongside the likes of Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis.
A singing role resulted in a series of cabaret engagements, and eventually Belafonte even opened his own club. Initially, he put his clear, silky voice to work as a straight pop singer, launching his recording career on the Jubilee label in 1949; however, at the dawn of the 1950s he discovered folk music, learning material through the Library of Congress' American folk songs archives while also discovering West Indian music.

With guitarist Millard Thomas, Belafonte soon made his debut at the legendary jazz club the Village Vanguard; in 1953, he made his film bow in Bright Road, winning a Tony Award the next year for his work in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson's Almanac. With his lead role in Otto Preminger's film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones, Belafonte shot to stardom; after signing to the RCA label, he issued Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, which reached the number three slot on the Billboard charts in the early weeks of 1956. His next effort, titled simply Belafonte, reached number one, kick-starting a national craze for calypso music; Calypso, also issued in 1956, topped the charts for a staggering 31 weeks on the strength of hits like "Jamaica Farewell" and the immortal "Banana Boat (Day-O).

Following the success of 1957's An Evening with Belafonte and its hit "Mary's Boy Child," Belafonte returned to film, using his now considerable clout to realize the controversial film Island in the Sun, in which his character contemplates an affair with a white woman portrayed by Joan Fontaine. Similarly, 1959's Odds Against Tomorrow cast him as a bank robber teamed with a racist accomplice. Also in 1959 he released the LP Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, a recording of a sold-out April performance that spent over three years on the charts; Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall followed in 1960 and featured appearances by Odetta, Miriam Makeba, and the Chad Mitchell Trio.


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