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Harry Belafonte: Iconic Superstar for the Ages

He was one of the most successful entertainers of all time and he earned the highest honor in show business: The EGOT, the holy grail of entertainment success when one wins the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (EGOT).

The icon, activist and legend, Harry Belafonte, passed away on April 25, 2023 at the age of 96. Belafonte's cultural impact, extraodinary talent and contribution to the civil right movement is nearly unmatched.

A true American success story, from rags to riches, Harry Belafonte was born March 1, 1927 and emerged as a powerhouse sex symbol before the word came into being. He popularized calypso music with international audiences in the 1950s. He earned his career breakthrough with the album Calypso (1956), which was the first million-selling LP by a single artist. It became the spark that launched an amazing career that expanded well beyond music. His name became a household word and his chiseled looks graces magazines around the world.

Belafonte was best known for his recordings of "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)", "Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)", "Jamaica Farewell", and "Mary's Boy Child". He recorded and performed in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards. His songs have been used in TV Shows, movies and radio commercials

Belafonte made the jump to the screen as well. He starred in films such as Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Buck and the Preacher (1972), and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). He made his final screen appearance in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman (2018).

The movie career lasted for more than 65 years with pauses for life, family, the civil rights movement and other important causes along the way.


With a smooth baritone voice, Belafonte was the first recording artist to sell more than one million albums, a significant milestone during segregation. Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927 and grew up on 114th Street. He served in the U.S. Navy during WWII

Belafonte's success also gave him the resources and the profile to make a profound contribution to the Civil Rights movement, notably after meeting King in 1956, becoming one of his main supporters, offering King a home away from home in his New York apartment and bailing him out of prison on occasion.


Belafonte considered the actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson a mentor, and he was a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It is said that he even bailed MLK out of jail and often came to his aid when he was needed. Belafonte also was said to have attracted notable celebrities to the civil rights struggle.

He was a vocal critic of the policies of the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations. Belafonte acted as the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues.

Born to Jamaican immigrants, Harry was the First African American to ever win an Emmy Award. Organized a contingent of celebrities to attend the 1963 March on Washington.


Belafonte won three Grammy Awards (including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award), an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. In 1989, he received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994.

In 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy's 6th Annual Governors Award and in 2022 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influence category. How many actors do you know made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Not many for sure.

His film career was bold as well. According to wikipedia, Belafonte took on then-controversial film roles. In 1957's Island in the Sun. In 1959, he starred in and produced, through his company HarBel Productions, Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow, in which he plays a bank robber uncomfortably teamed with a racist partner (Robert Ryan).

Belafonte was offered the role of Porgy in Otto Preminger's Porgy and Bess, where he would have once again starred opposite Dandridge, but refused the role because he objected to its racial stereotyping; Sidney Poitier played the role instead.

Unhappy with film roles offered to him during the 1960s, Belafonte turned back to his roots in music. In the early 1970s, he appeared films including two with Poitier: Buck and the Preacher (1972) which was a fan favorite to new audiences, and Uptown Saturday Night (1974).

In 1984, Belafonte produced and scored the musical film Beat Street, dealing with the rise of hip-hop culture. Together with Arthur Baker, he produced the gold-certified soundtrack of the same name.

Belafonte seen above in the 2018 film BlackkKlansman directed by Spike Lee.

Belafonte next starred in a major film in the mid-1990s, appearing with John Travolta in the race-reverse drama White Man's Burden (1995); and in Robert Altman's jazz age drama Kansas City (1996), the latter of which garnered him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor. His final film appearance was in Spike Lee's Academy Award-winning BlacKkKlansman (2018) as an elderly civil rights pioneer.

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