Singer Harry Belafonte Dies At 96

Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Harry Belafonte, the singer whose folk music broke through racial barriers in the 1950s and made him an international star, has died at the age of 96.

Born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, Belafonte joined his mother and younger brother to move to Jamaica in 1936, but in 1940, his mother returned to New York and left him and his brother with relatives in Jamaica. He returned to New York in 1940.

After serving in the Navy, Belafonte joined Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop; his classmates included Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis. He later befriended Sidney Poitier, who became his friend for the rest of his life.

After landing a recording contract with RCA, he won a Tony Award for his performance in the 1953 revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” He was then cast in the film of “Carmen Jones,” an all-black version of Bizet’s opera “Carmen.

“By 1959 he was the most highly paid Black performer in history, with fat contracts for appearances in Las Vegas, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and at the Palace in New York,” The New York Times noted. Belafonte immortalized songs such as “Day-O” and “Jamaica Farewell.” In 1960, his special “Tonight With Belafonte” won an Emmy.

Belafonte became a political activist, a principal fundraiser for Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference as well as providing funds to bail King out of jail; King stayed at Belafonte’s apartment in New York several times; he maintained an insurance policy for King with King’s family as the beneficiaries.

He later made harsh comments about former President George W. Bush, calling him “the greatest terrorist in the world” in 2006; supported Bill de Blasio in the 2013 New York mayoral election, and called the Koch brothers “white supremacists” and likened them to the Ku Klux Klan.

The New York Times published an opinion piece by Belafonte on Election Day 2016 in which he called Donald Trump “feckless and immature,” adding of black voters, “Mr. Trump asks us what we have to lose, and we must answer: Only the dream, only everything.”

In 2020, he echoed, “We have learned exactly how much we had to lose — a lesson that has been inflicted upon Black people again and again in our history — and we will not be bought off by the empty promises of the flimflam man.”

Belafonte was married three times; he met his first wife Marguerite Byrd while he was in the Navy; they married in 1948 and had two children. They later divorced; he then married Julie Robinson, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 2004, and he married Pamela Frank, a photographer, in 2008, who survives him.

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