Harry Belafonte, the legendary singer, actor, and civil rights activist, has died at the age of 96. According to The New York Times, Belafonte died of congestive heart failure at home in Manhattan today.
Harry Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem, New York to Carribean immigrants. He returned with his mother to her native Jamaica at the age of eight, where he spent much of his childhood before serving in the Navy during World War II. After his discharge, Belafonte studied acting at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop alongside the likes of Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis and eventually began performing at the American Negro Theater. In 1954, he won a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.
Belafonte launched his singing career by performing in nightclubs, releasing music on the Jubilee label before signing with RCA in 1953. His 1955 album Calypso topped the Billboard album chart for 31 weeks on the strength of singles like ‘Jamaica Farewell’ and ‘Banana Boat (Day-O)’. 1962’s Midnight Special featured the first-ever recorded appearance by a young musician named Bob Dylan, who played harmonica on the album. Belafonte’s final studio LP, Paradise in Gazankulu, came out in 1988.
In addition to releasing numerous albums, Belafonte was invited by Frank Sinatra to perform at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and, as a guest host on The Tonight Show in February 1968, interviewed Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Throughout his career, he supported humanitarian causes like UNICEF, USA for Africa, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and helped organize the star-packed charity single ‘We Are The World’.
Belafonte received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Last year, he became the oldest living person to receive the Early Influence Award from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.