Born in Harlem, New York, Harry Belafonte spent the majority of his early childhood years influenced by the music and atmosphere of his mother's native home in Jamaica. His formative years spent in Jamaica would help Belafonte introduce Calypso music to the United States with his hit "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)
" in 1956.
He served in the US Navy during World War II and attended the New School for Social Research in New York through financial aid provided by the GI Bill. After his graduation from the New School he began studying theatre at Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Worship and performing in stage plays with the American Negro Theatre.
In 1953 he was cast in John Murray Anderson's Broadway production of Almanac. His performance in the Broadway revue would earn him a Tony award for Best Supporting Actor that same year. He gained national recognition and stardom for his acting soon after with a leading role as Joe in the 1954 motion picture Carmen Jones. His co-star in the movie was Dorothy Dandridge.
After gaining national recognition as an actor Belafonte released Calypso in 1956. The album was a huge success in the US with its "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)" single selling more than 1 million records. It launched a calypso music craze that swept the country and introduced native songs from Trinidad and Jamaica to the American masses.
His acting and singing career continued throughout the 1960s and '70s but it would be his passion for the civil rights movement and humanitarian organizations that best defined Belafonte. He worked closely to further civil rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. up until his assassination in April of 1968. Belafonte's civil and human rights activism began in the 1960's but they were causes that he would champion for the rest of his life.
He was the subject of the 2011 HBO documentary Sing Your Song. The documentary film tells the remarkable story of Belafonte and encompasses a life of overcoming adversity and teaching others how to follow suit. It includes details about his early life while growing up in New York and Jamaica, his father's abandonment of the family at a young age, the struggles his mother endured as an immigrant in America raising a family alone. It includes details about his service in the navy, his acting and musical careers and emphasizes most prominently Belafonte's life long fight to improve living conditions all over the world through his endless humanitarian and charity based works.
This statement from Belofonte describes his humanitarian outlook: "I worked for human rights, I worked against capital punishment, I worked for people who were crushed and disenfranchised. I sang the song of the Jew, I sang the song of the Arab; I sang the song of the Japanese. I made sure I sang all those songs when I went to these countries. And through this we attested to our civility, to our humanity."
Belafonte was married to Marguerite Byrd in 1948. The marriage produced two children including daughter Shari who followed in her famous father's acting and humanitarian footsteps. His 1958 marriage to Julie Robinson produced 3 more children. Belafonte then married Pamela Frank in 2008.
In 1996 he underwent treatment for prostate cancer. In true Belafonte fashion he battled back and has beaten cancer for more than 15 years since being first diagnosed.
In 1985 Belafonte co-founded the USA for Africa charity and performed the massive hit "We Are The World
" which raised more than $60 million to fund famine relief victims in Ethiopia, The Sudan and many other impoverished African countries.
He recorded for RCA Records at the same time as Elvis Presley. In the '50s, many thought Presley's rock music was a passing fad, and Belafonte's calypso the enduring genre. It didn't work out that way.
In 1987 he was awarded the honor of serving as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). He would utilize his status as goodwill ambassador to effect change and bring attention to worldwide hunger, the Aids epidemic and genocide.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton honored Belafonte with the National Medal of the Arts for his lifetime of contributions to the performing arts in the US. The Ronald McDonald House Charities awarded him its Award of Excellence in 2000 for his extensive humanitarian work and fundraising efforts.