|HARRY BELAFONTE - BIOGRAPHY||
An actor, humanitarian and the acknowledged "King of Calypso," Harry Belafonte ranked among the 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, New York. 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 adapation 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, kickstarting 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 which 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.
At the turn of the 1960s, Belafonte became television's first black producer; his special Tonight with Harry Belafonte won an Emmy that same year. Although dissatisfied with filmmaking, he continued his prolific album output with 1961's Jump Up Calypso and 1962's The Midnight Special, which featured the first-ever recorded appearance by a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan. As the Beatles and other stars of the British Invasion began to dominate the pop charts, Belafonte's impact as a commercial force diminished; 1964's Belafonte at the Greek Theatre was his last Top 40 effort, and subsequent efforts like 1965's An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba and 1966's In My Quiet Room struggled even to crack the Top 100. After 1970's Homeward Bound, Belafonte retired from recording for the next several years; apart from making his first film appearance in over a decade that same year in The Angel Levine, his primary focus remained his work as a civil rights activist.
Despite infrequent returns to both recording (1977's Turn the World Around, 1981's Loving You Is Where I Belong and 1988's Paradise in Gazankulu) and film (1972's Buck and the Preacher and 1974's Uptown Saturday Night), Belafonte spent the vast majority of the 1970s and 1980s as a tireless humanitarian; most famously, he was a central figure of the USA for Africa effort, singing on the 1986 single "We Are the World." A year later, he replaced Danny Kaye as UNICEF's Goodwill Ambassador. After a long absence from the screen, Belafonte resurfaced in the mid-1990s in a number of film roles, most notably in the reverse-racism drama White Man's Burden and Robert Altman's jazz-era period piece Kansas City.