If the name Harry Belafonte means anything these days, it’s most likely for the Banana Boat Song, better known as Day-O. But for lifelong fans like me, that’s kind of a shame. As great as that song is, Belafonte’s musical repertoire is so much richer and varied than you might expect from someone dubbed “the King of Calypso.” His range included everything from blues, folk and gospel to showtunes and American standards. And he had comedic hits too.
It’s hard to overstate how big a star Harry Belafonte was in the late 1950’s and 60’s. His debut album spent 31 straight weeks at number one and was the first LP to sell over a million copies in the U.S. in a single year. Impossibly good-looking and charismatic, Belafonte won a Tony on Broadway and became the first African-American to win an Emmy, for his first TV special.
He also starred in a number of controversial movies, like 1957’s “Island in the Sun” in which there are hints of an affair between Belafonte’s character and his white co-star.
The black-white tension in a fictional setting simply mirrored real-life for Belafonte. In the 60’s, he scandalized television executives, for example, when he dared to embrace Petula Clark during a TV special.
Very much a man of his times, Belafonte became a social activist in the 60’s, starting with the civil rights movement – arm in arm with Martin Luther King. (All of this is well-documented in the 2011 HBO film, “Sing Your Song.”)
As one of the few black celebrities in the country at the time, Belafonte used his fame to publicize and bankroll much of the civil rights movement. He’s been a life-long advocate of human rights ever since.
Belafonte’s activism has taken him into some very controversial political waters in recent decades. A longtime critic of much of the U.S.’s foreign policy, Belafonte, during the George W. Bush years, went so far as to call Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and General Colin Powell “house slaves.”
Rather than mellowing with age – by the way, he’s now 85 – Belafonte if anything has become more radical – or at least outspoken.
Belafonte had to retire from performing a decade ago, but he has not stopped fighting what he considers the good fight. His appearance at Seattle’s Moore Theatre will recount the highlights of his rich life and no doubt throw in an opinion or two about the current state of our country and the world. After all, he’s singing his song.