Harry Belafonte dies at 96

Harry Belafonte, the groundbreaking singer and actor who broke racial barriers in the United States, passed away at his Manhattan home at the age of 96.

Belafonte was one of the most successful African-American pop stars in history, with hit songs such as Island In The Sun, Mary’s Boy Child, and the UK number one Day-O (The Banana Boat Song). However, his most significant accomplishments were as an advocate for African-American civil rights in the US.

His spokesman, Ken Sunshine, announced that Belafonte died of congestive heart failure.

Frequently referred to as the King of Calypso, Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York, in 1927. After serving in the Navy, he pursued acting and studied drama at Erwin Piscator’s prestigious Dramatic Workshop alongside notable actors such as Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis.

To pay for his classes, Belafonte sang at New York clubs, backed by groups that included legendary musicians Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. This led to a recording contract and a deep dive into the folk song archives at the US Library of Congress for material.

His efforts paid off, and the charismatic young star became known as the King of Calypso. He popularized songs like the Banana Boat Song and Jamaica Farewell, both featured on his third album, Calypso, released in 1956. The album topped the Billboard charts and became the first solo artist album to sell over a million copies in the US.

Belafonte’s success earned him the distinction of being the first African-American to perform in many upscale US venues previously closed to artists such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

In 1953, Belafonte made his Broadway debut in the musical John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, for which he won a Tony Award for supporting actor. He later appeared in films, securing his first lead role in Island in the Sun, where he starred alongside James Mason, Joan Fontaine, and Joan Collins, with whom he had a romantic relationship.

Throughout his career, Belafonte recorded more than 30 albums, including collaborations with Nana Mouskouri, Lena Horne, and Miriam Makeba. Bob Dylan made his first recorded appearance playing harmonica on Belafonte’s 1962 album, Midnight Special.

Belafonte, inspired by a news report on famine, believed that American artists needed to raise money similarly to how Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had done with the song Do They Know It’s Christmas? a year earlier. Featuring superstars such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Diana Ross, the song—written by Jackson and Lionel Richie—raised millions of dollars.

In a 2011 National Public Radio interview, Belafonte said, “A lot of people say to me, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’ I say to them, ‘I was long an activist before I became an artist.'”

Belafonte was married three times and had four children, including actress-model Shari Belafonte, from his marriages to Marguerite Byrd and Julia Robinson, a former dancer

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