From a janitor’s assistant to first solo million-selling album, the tale of Harry Belafonte

Michael Eli Dokosi Mar 31, 2020 at 11:00am

March 31, 2020 at 11:00 am | Entertainment, Faces of Black Excellence

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

March 31, 2020 at 11:00 am | Entertainment, Faces of Black Excellence

Harry Belafonte (AP Photo/Steffi Loos, File) ORG XMIT: NYET300

Jamaican-American Harry Belafonte was not always wealthy and musically acclaimed. Indeed in 1946, as a 19-year-old, Belafonte was fresh out of the Navy, working as a janitor’s assistant when an actress whose window blinds he installed gave him a theater ticket as a tip. It will set him on a path of greatness in the entertainment space.

Today, he is the “King of Calypso” and for good reason. He was the first solo singer to have a million-selling album (“Calypso,” from 1956) and the first African-American to win an Emmy (for “Tonight With Belafonte,” in 1959).

Handsome and charismatic, the man with a net worth of $28 million turned 93 on March 1, celebrating with a tribute at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

The singer, songwriter, activist, and actor was in the thick of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. He either helped organize or fund just about everything related to the movement including Freedom Summer, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the 1963 March on Washington, the cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa and the 1985 charity fund-raiser megahit “We Are the World.” His place in black history, black activism and black arts is well assured.

Belafonte has won three Grammy Awards (including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award), an Emmy Award and a Tony Award for his participation in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.

He started his career in music as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. In 1949, he was working in the kitchen at a jazz joint called the Royal Roost, where he made his debut as a singer one night during intermission — with a backing band that included Charlie Parker and Max Roach.

Soon, he was working steadily getting gigs at important clubs like the Village Vanguard, Birdland and The Blue Angel. He started getting tiny mentions in newspapers to covering magazines until he was everywhere.

The man born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. at Lying-in Hospital on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York who served in the Navy during World War II now has his collection acquired by a group.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library, has acquired Mr. Belafonte’s personal archive — a vast maze of photographs, recordings, films, letters, artwork, clipping albums and other materials for posterity although the library is not disclosing the terms of the acquisition, which was made with support from a consortium including the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and the Open Society Foundation.

His huge audiovisual collection — including master tapes, live sets, demos, and impromptu home movies and recordings — sits in a warehouse.

Harry Belafonte and dr. Martin Luther King jr. | Black history ...
Harry Belafonte and Dr. Martin Luther King jr. via Pinterest

Belafonte knew and interacted with notables as a singer, actor or activists. They included Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Marlon Brando, Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedys, Nelson Mandela, Lorraine Hansberry, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, James Baldwin, Dorothy Dandridge, Langston Hughes Charles and White Joan Baez.

The archive’s rarities also include a trove of photographs and planning notes from the week in February 1968 when Mr. Belafonte was the guest host of “The Tonight Show.” His guest list included Dr. King, Robert F. Kennedy, Lena Horne, Bill Cosby, Wilt Chamberlain, Marianne Moore and Zero Mostel.

In the warehouse housing his formidable collection, every wall and table is covered with photographs, gold records, awards plaques, art and posters from his many movies.

Belafonte took Marguerite Byrd, Julie Robinson and Pamela Frank as wives. He has five children.

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