Harold George Belafonte, Jr. (born March 1, 1927) is an American musician, actor and social activist. One of the most successful Jamaican musicians in history, he was dubbed the "King of Calypso" for popularizing the Caribbean musical style in the 1950s. Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing the "Banana Boat Song", with its signature lyric "Day-O". Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes. In recent years he has been a vocal critic of the policies of the Bush Administration
Harold George Belafonete, Jr. (original spelling) was born in Harlem, New York, the son of Melvine (née Love), a domestic worker, and Harold George Belafonete, Sr., a chef and native of the island Martinique. From 1935 to 1939, he lived with his grandmother in the village of Aboukir in her native country of Jamaica. When he returned to New York he attended George Washington High School after which he joined the Navy and served during World War II. At the end of the 1940s, he took classes in acting alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, and Sidney Poitier, while performing with the American Negro Theatre. He subsequently received a Tony Award for his participation in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson's Almanac.
Belafonte 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. At first he was a pop singer, launching his recording career on the Jubilee label in 1949, but later he 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.
In 1952 he received a contract with RCA Victor. His first full-release single was Matilda, recorded April 27, 1953, which went on to remain his 'signature' song throughout his career. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) became the first LP to sell over 1 million copies (Bing Crosby's White Christmas and Tennessee Ernie Ford's Sixteen Tons, both singles, had previously surpassed the 1 million mark). The album is number four on Billboard's "Top 100 Album" list for having spent 31 weeks at number 1, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the U.S. charts. The album introduced American audiences to Calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the "King of Calypso", a title he wore with some reservations. One of the songs included in the album is the now famous "Banana Boat Song," with its signature lyric "Day-O". While primarily known for his Calypso songs, Belafonte has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards. His second-best hit, which came immediately after "The Banana Boat Song", was the novelty tune "Mama Look at Bubu", also known as "Mama Look a Boo-Boo", in which he sings humorously about misbehaving and disrespectful children.
Belafonte continued to record for RCA through the 1950s to the 1970s. Two live albums, both recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1959 and 1960, enjoyed critical and commercial success. He was one of many entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the Inaugural gala of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. That same year he released his second Calypso album, Jump Up Calypso, which went on to become another million seller.
During the 1960s he introduced a number of artists to American audiences, most notably African singer Miriam Makeba and Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. His album Midnight Special (1962) featured the first-ever recorded appearance by a then young harmonica player named Bob Dylan. As The Beatles and other stars from Britain began to dominate the U.S. pop charts, Belafonte's impact as a commercial force diminished; 1964's Belafonte At The Greek Theatre was his last album to appear in Billboard's Top 40.
Belafonte has received a Grammy Award for the albums Swing That Hammer (1960) and An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba (1965). The latter album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid. He has been awarded six Gold Records.
Belafonte's album output in the 1970s slowed after leaving RCA. He released only one album of original material in the 1980s, coinciding with a stronger focus on politics and activism. A soundtrack and video of a televised concert were released in 1997 by Island Records. The Long Road to Freedom, An Anthology of Black Music, a huge multi-artist project recorded during the 1960s and 1970s while he was still with RCA, was finally released by the label in 2001.
Belafonte was the first African-American man to win an Emmy, with his first solo TV special Tonight with Belafonte (1959). During the 1960s he appeared in a number of TV specials, alongside such artists as Julie Andrews, Petula Clark, Lena Horne, and Nana Mouskouri. He was also a guest star on a memorable episode of The Muppet Show in 1978, in which he sang his signature song "Day-O" on television for the very first time. However, the episode is best known for Belafonte singing the spiritual song, "Turn the World Around", that is performed with Muppets designed like African tribal masks. It has become one of the most famous performances in the series. It was reported to be Jim Henson's favorite episode, and Belafonte did a reprise of the song at Henson's funeral in 1990.
Harry Belafonte received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994 and he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
Belafonte has been a major concert draw since his first world tour in 1956. He has continued to perform before audiences globally through the 1950s to the 2000s. He gave his last concert in 2003, and in a recent interview stated that he has since retired from performing.