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'King of Calypso': Iconic Music Superstar and Actor Dies at 96

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Harry Belafonte, the civil rights activist, humanitarian and entertainment giant who began as a groundbreaking actor and singer has died. He was 96.

Belafonte died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his New York home, his wife Pamela by his side, said Ken Sunshine, of public relations firm Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis.

With his glowing, handsome face and silky-husky voice, Belafonte was one of the first black performers to gain a wide following on film and to sell a million records as a singer; many still know him for his signature hit “Banana Boat Song (Day-O).”

Belafonte stands as the model and the epitome of the celebrity activist.

Belafonte not only participated in protest marches and benefit concerts, but helped organize and raise support for them. He worked closely with his friend and generational peer the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., often intervening on his behalf with both politicians and fellow entertainers and helping him financially. He risked his life and livelihood and set high standards for younger black celebrities, scolding Jay Z and Beyonce for failing to meet their “social responsibilities,” and mentoring Usher, Common, Danny Glover and many others.

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Belafonte’s friend, civil rights leader Andrew Young, noted that Belafonte was a person that grew more radical with age. He was ever engaged and unyielding, willing to take on Southern segregationists, Northern liberals, the billionaire Koch brothers and President Barack Obama.

Belafonte had been a major artist since the 1950s. He won a Tony Award in 1954 for his starring role in John Murray Anderson’s “Almanac” and five years later became the first black performer to win an Emmy for the TV special “Tonight with Harry Belafonte.”

“Calypso,” released in 1955, became the first officially certified million-selling album by a solo performer and started a national infatuation with Caribbean rhythms (Belafonte was nicknamed, reluctantly, the “King of Calypso″).

Admirers of Belafonte included a young Bob Dylan, who debuted on record in the early 1960s by playing harmonica on Belafonte’s “Midnight Special.”

“Harry was the best balladeer in the land, and everybody knew it,” Dylan later wrote.

Belafonte befriended King in the spring of 1956 after the young civil rights leader called and asked for a meeting. They spoke for hours, and Belafonte would remember feeling King raised him to the “higher plane of social protest.” Then at the peak of his singing career, Belafonte was soon producing a benefit concert for the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that helped make King a national figure. By the early 1960s, he had decided to make civil rights his priority.

“I was having almost daily talks with Martin,” Belafonte wrote in his memoir “My Song.”

“I realized that the movement was more important than anything else.”

The Kennedys were among the first politicians to seek his opinions, which he willingly shared. John F. Kennedy, at a time when blacks were as likely to vote for Republicans as for Democrats, was so anxious for his support that during the 1960 election, he visited Belafonte at his Manhattan home. Belafonte explained King’s importance and arranged for King and Kennedy to meet.

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In 1963, Belafonte was deeply involved with the historic March on Washington. He recruited his close friend Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman and other celebrities and persuaded the left-wing Marlon Brando to co-chair the Hollywood delegation with the more conservative Charlton Heston, a pairing designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In 1964, he and Poitier personally delivered tens of thousands of dollar to activists in Mississippi after three “Freedom Summer” volunteers were murdered — the two celebrities were chased by car at one point by members of the KKK. The following year, he brought in Tony Bennett, Joan Baez and other singers to perform for the marchers in Selma, Alabama.

When King was assassinated, in 1968, Belafonte helped pick out the suit he was buried in, sat next to his widow, Coretta, at the funeral, and continued to support his family, in part through an insurance policy he had taken out on King in his lifetime.

“Much of my political outlook was already in place when I encountered Dr. King,” Belafonte later wrote. “I was well on my way and utterly committed to the civil rights struggle. I came to him with expectations, and he affirmed them.”

Belafonte’s early life was spent partly in the Caribbean before he ended up in New York. He served in the military during World War II, acted in the American Negro Theatre and then broke into film.

Belafonte did occasionally serve in government, as cultural adviser for the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration and decades later as goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. For his film and music career, he received the motion picture academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, a National Medal of Arts, a Grammy for lifetime achievement and numerous other honorary prizes. He found special pleasure in winning a New York Film Critics Award in 1996 for his work as a gangster in Robert Altman’s “Kansas City.”

“I’m as proud of that film critics’ award as I am of all my gold records,” he wrote in his memoir.

He was married three times, most recently to photographer Pamela Frank, and had four children. He is also survived by two stepchildren and eight grandchildren.

The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.

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