Harry Belafonte, who stormed the pop charts and broke racial barriers in the 1950s with his highly personal folk music, and went on to become a dynamic force in the civil rights movement, has died at 96.
At a time when segregation was still widespread and black faces were still a rarity on the big and small screens, Belafonte’s ascent to the highest echelon of show business was historic.
He was not the first black artist to cross racial boundaries; Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and others had achieved stardom before him. But none had caused as much of a sensation as he had, and for a few years no one in music, black or white, was bigger.
Life and work of Harry Belafonte
Born in Harlem, the son of West Indian immigrants, he almost single-handedly sparked a craze for Caribbean music with hits like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
His album “Calypso,” which included those two songs, reached the top spot on the Billboard album chart shortly after its release in 1956 and remained there for 31 weeks.
Just before Elvis Presley’s breakthrough, it is said to be the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies.
Belafonte was equally successful as a concert attraction. By 1959 he was already the highest paid black entertainer in history, with lucrative contracts to perform in Las Vegas, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and at the Palace in New York.
His time in the movies was short-lived: he wanted to be an activist
Success as a singer led to film offers, and Belafonte soon became the first black actor to achieve major Hollywood success as a leading man.
His movie stardom was short-lived, however, and it was his friendly rival Sidney Poitier, not Mr. Belafonte, who became the first black idol of the silver screen.
But making movies was never Mr. Belafonte’s priority, and after a while neither was making music.
He continued acting into the 21st century and appearing in films, but from the late 1950s onward he focused primarily on civil rights and the struggle for African-American rights in the United States.
Early in his career, he befriended the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and became not only a lifelong friend, but also an ardent supporter of the quest for racial equality that he personified.
Today he dies at the age of 96 and leaves us someone who did as much good in front of a microphone, in front of the camera, as he did leading marches across the United States.
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