You probably do not know him under his real name, but you know about his singing and professional name as Harry Belafonte and his well-known song “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O!).” Harry was born March 1, 1927, at Lying-in Hospital in Harlem, New York City, the son of Jamaican parents. He was raised Catholic and attended a parochial school, St. Charles Borromeo.
He lived with his grandmother in Jamaica from 1932 until 1940. He returned to New York and dropped out of George Washington High School and joined the US Navy, serving in World War II. Upon his return he became a janitor and a friend of Sidney Poitier. In the late 40s, he attended classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York City under the director Erwin Piscator in classes that included Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur and Poitier, while performing with the American Negro Theatre. This led him into performances, such as the Broadway Revue of John Murray Anderson’s “Almanac” in 1954, which won him a Tony Award. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway revue of “3 For Tonight” with Gower Champion.
He started singing in clubs to earn tuition money for his acting classes. His first performance in front of an audience was backed by the Charlie Parker band. His music career advanced with recording with the Root label in 1949. He soon became interested in folk music, learning material through the Library of Congress’ American folk songs archives. He made his debut at the legendary jazz club “The Village Vanguard.” Harry signed a contract with RCA Victor in 1953 and continued with RCA, recording albums until 1974. His big hit single went on to become his signature audience participation in his live performances – “Matilda” – recorded April 27, 1953.
Belafonte’s breakthrough album, “Calypso,” in 1956 became the first LP in the world to sell more than one million copies within a year. It was the first million seller ever in England. The album is number four on Billboard’s Top 100 album list, spending 31 weeks at number one, 58 in the Top Ten, and 99 weeks on the US Chart. He introduced America to Calypso music, which originated in Trinidad and Tobago, earning Harry the title of “King of Calypso.” One of the songs in the album was the “The Banana Boat Song; the album reached number three on the charts.
In his middle career years, although well known for calypso, he recorded blues, folk, gospel, show tunes and American standards. In 1959 he starred in “Tonight With Belafonte” in a national televised special with Odetta, who sang “Water Boy.” Together they sang, “There’s a Hole in my Bucket,” which hit the charts in 1961. Harry was the first Jamaican American to win an Emmy for “Revlon Review Tonight” in 1959. He released many songs and albums during the 1960s and appeared on many musical specials on TV.
From the mid-70s, Belafonte spent most of his time on tour, which included performances in Japan, Europe and Cuba. In 1978 he was a guest star on “The Muppet Show” featuring “Day-O!”
In 1953 Belafonte started a film career. He had a hit musical in 1954, “Carmen Jones.” In 1957 he did “Islands in the Sun.” He did “Uptown Saturday Night” in 1974. In 1996 he starred in Robert Altman’s “Kansas City,” which earned him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Harry had a political bent: He was a Democrat and was active in humanitarian activism. His beliefs were inspired by Paul Robeson, who opposed racism throughout the world. Belafonte refused to perform in the American South from 1954 to 1961. He appeared in a campaign commercial for Jack Kennedy in 1960, and Kennedy appointed him as cultural advisor to the Peace Corps. Harry was very active in the Civil Rights Movement throughout his career. In 1964 he provided funds for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In 2014 he was given an honorary degree from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Belafonte died on April 25, 2023, at 96 years old in New York City.
I will always remember “work all night on a drink of rum, daylight comes and I wanna go home” from “Day-O!” – one of my favorite songs of all time.
(Editor’s Note: Bill Stewart, better known to Saugus Advocate readers as “The Old Sachem,” writes a weekly column about sports – and sometimes he opines on current or historical events or famous people.)