Legendary Singer Harry Belafonte Dies, Aged 96

26 April 2023 | 12:01 am | Stephen Green

Legendary crooner, activist and actor Harry Belafonte has passed away at age 96.

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One of the 20th Century's most beloved voices, Harry Belafonte, passed away today from congestive heart failure according to the New York Times. 

Best known for his hits in the 1950s and 60s including The Banana Boat Song (with it's iconic day-o lyric), the singer was the first artist in history to achieve 1 million sales on an album for his 1956 record Calypso. Born in the US, but spending much of his childhood in his parent's birthplace Jamaica, it was his cultural heritage that saw his breakthrough into the mainstream. His signature song spent 18 weeks in the UK singles chart as well as conquering the US. 

One of the biggest superstars of the 50s, Belafonte also starred in movies including Carmen Jones, Island In The Sun and Odds Against Tomorrow. He was also a close condifant of Martin Luther King Jr during the civil rights movement and fought tirelessly for black rights throughout his career. 

"Paul Robeson had been my first great formative influence; you might say he gave me my backbone. Martin King was the second; he nourished my soul," he said. 

He also fought for a variety of other causes including poverty, apartheid and Aids in Africa, including organising the We Are The World charity single. He was appointed a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador in 1987 and also campaigned for prostate cancer awareness in the 90s. He was an outspoken left-winger, speaking out against issues including Guantanamo Bay detentions and criticised Jay-Z and Beyonce in 2012 for having "turned their back on social responsibility". 

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Belafonte won three Grammy Awards (including lifetime achievement), an Emmy and a Tony and was last year inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall Of Fame 'Early Influence' category. Originally a jazz singer working with the likes of Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis, he first turned his hand to folk music in 1949 and eventually pop. 

He ran with the Rat Pack, including Sammy Davis Jr and was a regular performer in Las Vegas including at the legendary Sands Casino. His Calypso album broke him worldwide, creating a multi-decade career that saw him master the big screen, small screen and theatre worlds as an actor, singer and host. Bob Dylan's first recording was playing harmonica on Belafonte's 1962 album Midnight Special and Belafonte was hired by Frank Sinatra to perform at John F Kennedy's presidential inauguration. 

Belafonte released thirty albums across his career, with his last studio record in 1988. His final acting role was poignantly in Spike Lee's 2018 movie BlacKkKlansman in which he played an elderly civil rights pioneer.