Harold George “Harry” Belafonte, Jr. is an American musician, singer actor and social activist. One of the most successful pop singers in history, he was dubbed the “King of Calypso,” a title which he was very reluctant to accept for popularizing the Caribbean musical style with an international audience in the 1950s. Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing the “Banana Boat Song”, with its signature lyric “Day-O.” Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes, and was a vocal critic of the policies of the George W. Bush Administration. He also worked as an actor.
Born Harold George Belafonte, Jr., at Lying-in Hospital, New York City, New York, Belafonte was the son of Melvine, a housekeeper, and Harold George Belafonete, Sr., a Martinican who worked as chef in the Royal Navy. From 1932 to 1940, he lived with his grandmother in the village of Aboukir in her native country of Jamaica. When he returned to New York City he attended George Washington High School after which he joined the Navy and served during World War II. At the end of the 1940s, he took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with the influential German director Erwin Piscator alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, and Sidney Poitier, while performing with the American Negro Theatre. He subsequently received a Tony Award for his participation in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.
Belafonte started his career in music as a club singer in New York, to pay for his acting classes. The first time he appeared in front of an audience he was backed by the Charlie Parker band, which included Charlie Parker himself, Max Roach, and Miles Davis among others. At first he was a pop singer, launching his recording career on the Roost label in 1949, but later he developed a keen interest in folk music, learning material through the Library of Congress’ American folk songs archives. With guitarist and friend Millard Thomas, Belafonte soon made his debut at the legendary jazz club The Village Vanguard. In 1952 he received a contract with RCA Victor.
His first wide-release single, which went on to become his “signature” song with audience participation in virtually all his live performances, was “Matilda”, recorded April 27, 1953. His breakthrough album Calypso became the first LP to sell over 1 million copies. The album is number four on Billboard’s “Top 100 Album” list for having spent 31 weeks at number 1, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the U.S. charts. The album introduced American audiences to Calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the “King of Calypso,” a title he wore with some reservations, since he had no claims to any Calypso Monarch titles.