Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte, 1 March 1927- 25 April 2023

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The singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte died on 25 April, of congestive heart failure, at his home in New York City, said his spokesman, Ken Sunshine. He was ninety-six.

Belafonte was born in Harlem, in 1927, his father hailing from Martinique, and his mother from Jamaica. Between the ages of 8 and about 13, he lived in Jamaica with his mother, then returning to the U.S. to continue high school before serving in the navy during World War II.

Belafonte married three times, first Marguerite Byrd, from 1948 to 1957, with whom he had two daughters, activist Adrienne and actor Shari. He had two further children with his second wife, Julie Robinson: actor Gina and music producer David. He and Robinson divorced after 47 years, and in 2008 he married Pamela Frank, who survives him.

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Belafonte’s legacy as a charismatic singer and actor was sealed with the release of the landmark album, Calypso, in 1956, which spanned more than six decades. Day-O, or, as it’s sometimes known, The Banana Boat Song, was based on a Jamaican folk song and first recorded in 1952 by the Trinidadian singer Edric Connor. Irving Burgie reworked the lyrics for the version Belafonte would sing on the 1956 album; that version went to number five on the Billboard singles chart, and helped Calypso become the first full-length album ever credited with selling one million copies in the United States. The song spent 18 weeks in the UK singles chart, including three weeks at number two. His version of Mary’s Boy Child went on to be a UK chart-topper later that year, whilst Island in the Sun reached number three. Other songs made famous by this ground breaker include Jamaica Farewell, Jump in the Line, Matilda, Mama Look a Boo Boo, and Coconut Woman.

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

When his record company, RCA Victor, promoted Belafonte as the ‘King of Calypso’, he was denounced as a pretender in Trinidad, the acknowledged birthplace of calypso. However, he never claimed to be a purist when it came to calypso, or any of the other traditional styles he embraced, let alone billing himself as the ‘king’ of calypso. He and his song writing collaborators loved folk music, he said, but saw nothing wrong with shaping it to their own ends.

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