Across disciplines, across genres, across generations, Harry Belafonte was a titan. As a musician in the ‘50s and ‘60s he was a blockbuster performer. At the same time, he rose as a charismatic lead actor of stage and screen whose performances challenged and upended racial prejudice. As an activist, he used his fame to amplify movements (he was a close friend to Martin Luther King) and advance humanitarian causes. Had he only been one of those things, the announcement of his passing today at the age of 96 would still be a grand loss. But as all these things and more, it’s fair to say we will never see his like again.
Belafonte easily mingled with talk show emcees and Muppets, and at the same time helped draw a blueprint for turning art into activism. His range was broad, and his commitment lasting. He made his first film in 1953, and his last, with Spike Lee, in 2018. Musically, Belafonte broke through in 1956 singing calypso; three decades later he was still introducing unique styles and performers in popular music as one of the producers of the early hip-hop film Beat Street in 1984. (He co-produced the soundtrack, which featured Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa, and salsero Ruben Blades.) Drawn from seven decades, these 10 songs and film and TV appearances paint a picture of a legendary figure whose impact cannot be overstated.
Carmen Jones (1954) Though perhaps best known early on as a singer, Belafonte’s first ambition was acting. He studied at the New School alongside Marlon Brando and his friendly rival Sidney Poitier, and took club gigs to pay for his tuition. Both career tracks took off almost simultaneously, thanks to a record deal with RCA Victor and a star turn in Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Carmen Jones, a take on Bizet’s opera Carmen by lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II featuring an all-Black cast. Though Belafonte and co-star Dorothy Danridge, both known singers, had their vocals dubbed in the films, Carmen Jones’ spectacle earned two Academy Award nominations, and it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992.
“The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” (1956) Few singers have elevated two syllables to such lofty heights. This Jamaican folk song became the centerpiece to Belafonte’s 1956 breakthrough album, Calypso, credited with introducing the Caribbean genre of the same name to Western audiences. Having already become that year’s best-selling album, beating out Elvis Presley’s first LPs and reportedly staking a claim as the first record to sell more than a million copies, “Banana Boat” propelled Calypso to the top of the charts for a staggering 31 weeks – 20 of which flowed consecutively through January to May 1957. In 2011, two pop chart hits sampled the track, a fine example of its cross-generational appeal.
“Mary’s Boy Child” (1956) One of Belefonte’s first post-Calypso recordings was a moving rendition of a calypso-influenced holiday song that helped his popularity take off outside of America. “Mary’s Boy Child” is not only a seasonal song of uncommon gentility, it’s a British Christmas standard to this day. In the U.K., it topped the charts not only in Belafonte’s rendition but a bestseller by the disco group Boney M more than two decades later.
Island in the Sun (1957) If you needed any proof of how deep the stink of racism hung over America in the 20th century, consider the uproar over this film adaptation of a novel about race relations on a fictitious island in the British West Indies. Belafonte and Joan Fontaine were cast as a couple, which seriously pissed off white Southerners for its unblinking depiction of a mixed-race couple. Despite waves of protests and an outright ban or two, the film still became one of the top 10 highest-grossing pictures of 1957.
“Jump in the Line (Shake, Shake Senora)” (1961) As the ‘60s wore on, Belafonte would transition from blockbuster recording artist to impassioned activist. But at the start of the decade, he still had unbeatable bangers to spare. Case in point: this brassy hip-shaker from the Jump Up Calypso album that gained a second life nearly three decades later (along with several other songs from the Belafonte discography) when it was included in Tim Burton’s 1988 horror-comedy Beetlejuice.
Midnight Special (1962) Belafonte would credit the Library of Congress with his immersion into folk music around the world, and he tried to remain steadfast about his place in the genre, bristling when RCA promoted him as the “King of Calypso,” a title actually bestowed on competing singers in Trinidad. His version of this song — made famous by Leadbelly in the ’30s and ’40s, recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969, but dating all the way back to 1905 — would help another interpreter of folk music establish himself. The harmonica is provided by a 20-year-old Bob Dylan, who recently blown into New York City — it would be his first commercially released recording.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1968) Belafonte made his mark in television early on, winning an Emmy Award for a national special in 1959. By this point, 15 years into his career as a nationally recognized entertainer, he was equally engaged as an organizer: he’d helped organized the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington, and gave generous donations to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He understood the power of entertainment as a platform, and when he guest hosted The Tonight Show in early 1968 his guests included Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
Plymouth Presents Petula (1968) Another notable TV appearance by Belafonte in 1968 occurred when he was tapped as the guest for British singer Petula Clark’s first U.S. special. During a duet of an antiwar song called “On the Path of Glory,” Clark spontaneously clasped Belafonte’s arm, causing representatives of car manufacturer Chrysler, the show’s sponsor, to ask for another take that wouldn’t potentially rile any racists tuning in. Clark stood her ground, keeping the performance as is; it aired four days after Dr. King was assassinated.
Buck and the Preacher (1972) Though the pair had something of a professional rivalry, Belafonte and classmate Sidney Poitier were friends, and two of the most prominent Black actors of their generation. They joined forces for Poitier’s directorial debut, a Black-led Western that injected a bit more humor into the proceedings than audiences had come to expect from the poised Poitier. It remains an underrated entry in both mens’ filmographies.
“Turn the World Around” (1977) Belafonte’s output as a recording artist slowed to a trickle by the end of the ‘70s, but his first of two albums for Columbia included one of his most memorable songs. The fast-paced, West African-influenced title track to Turn the World Around didn’t even get a release in America, but stateside audiences couldn’t miss it when Belafonte guest hosted The Muppet Show, performing the song with a specially-designed troupe of tribal mask-wearing Muppets. Series creator Jim Henson considered it to be a high point on the show, and Belafonte later performed the song at his memorial service in 1990.
BlacKkKlansman (2018) By the 21st century, Harry Belafonte’s work was etched into cultural history. He’d spent the ‘80s helping organize charitable music endeavors like USA for Africa and Live Aid, serving as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, campaigning against the spread of AIDS and apartheid in Africa, and—notably—offering opinions about foreign policy that didn’t always align with the American temperament. At 91 years old, in his final film role, the legendary singer and actor connected the march to justice across history in a powerful scene in Spike Lee’s historical drama BlacKkKlansman, telling the true story of a lynching in Waco, Texas, to a horrified black student organization.