Singer and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte passed away from natural causes in his Upper West Side Manhattan home on Tuesday. He was 96.
His official cause of death is congestive heart failure, according to his publicist.
Belafonte is best known for his hit songs “Day-O” (“The Banana Boat Song”), “Jump in the Line” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
As an actor he played leading roles in movies such as Carmen Jones (with Dorothy Dandridge and Joe Adams) and Island in the Sun.
Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. on March 1, 1927 in New York City. The son of Jamaican-born parents was raised by his grandmother in Jamaica, where he developed a love for island music.
Upon returning to New York City, he attended George Washington High School after which he joined the Navy and served during World War II.
While working as a janitor in NYC in the 1940s, Belafonte met aspiring actor Sidney Poitier at the American Negro Theater.
The two struggling actors trained 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, and Bea Arthur.
Belafonte worked gigs as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes.
He subsequently received a Tony Award for his participation in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac (1954).
In 1953, Belafonte earned enough money from acting and singing to move from Washington Heights, Manhattan “into a white neighborhood in Elmhurst, Queens.” There he dated white women, including actress Joan Collins whom he met during the filming of Island in the Sun.
Belafonte launched his recording career as a pop singer on the Roost label in 1949.
His debut album, Calypso, was the first album by a solo artist to sell more than 1 million copies in a year. It peaked on the Billboard albums chart in 1956 and remained there for more than 30 weeks.
The single “Calypso” was a crowd favorite and he performed it at all of his live concerts.
“Day-O”, another single off Belafonte’s debut album, was originally titled “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” and peaked at No. 5 on the pop charts.
“Day-O”, based on a song from Edric Connor and the Caribbeans 1952 album Songs From Jamaica, became Belafonte’s signature song.
“Day-O” and “Jump in the Line” were heard in the 1988 movie Beetlejuice.
Rapper Lil Wayne sampled “Day-O” in his song “6 Foot 7 Foot” off his ninth album, Tha Carter IV (2011).
After making a name for himself in music and acting, Belafonte became an activist, speaking out against racism in the United States.
He experienced racism in Hollywood as he described himself as a singer of music with “roots in the black culture of American Negroes, Africa and the West Indies.”
Belafonte befriended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and routinely bailed out Dr. King and other civil rights leaders from jails in the 1960s.
Belafonte walked with King at the historic March on Washington in 1963, and made sure Dr. King’s family was provided for financially after he was assassinated in 1968.
Belafonte was married three times and fathered 4 children, including singer/actress Shari Belafonte. He has five grandchildren.