His two biggest influences were Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King, Jr. He sang with Muppets and for Presidents. He made movies as recently as 2018. He was a cultural icon for his music, his acting, and his politics. He was one of our last connections with the height of the Civil Rights movement., a man who was blacklisted under McCarthy and marched on Washington. He performed with Dorothy Dandridge and Odetta and Julie Andrews. He was one of the greats for many decades, both artistically and politically.
He was inspired to act based on a performance of the American Negro Theater. He and his friend Sidney Poitier had been gifted a pair of tickets to a performance. For later performances, they would often buy a single ticket and each watch part of the play, trading places between acts and keeping one another filled in on the action. Belafonte became a nightclub singer to pay for acting lessons; the first time he performed before an audience, he was backed by Charlie Parker and his band.
It’s basically impossible to talk about Harry Belafonte without listing a whole lot of other famous names, because his career is so intimately entwined with pop culture and politics of the twentieth century.; How can you not mention his mentors? His friend from his struggling acting days? His time in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas? Petula Clark’s refusal to rerecord a segment of a special they did together just because she touched him? The fact that his episode of The Muppet Show was supposedly Jim’s favourite? There’s so much about him that connects to so many other people.
He was, of course, a fantastic performer. He had a powerful singing voice and an intense charisma. He didn’t do many movies, but when he did, his presence lit up the screen. There was an intensity to him that was magnificent to watch. He turned down the role of Porgy as he did not like the stereotyped nature of the role—of the work as a whole. He chose his roles carefully, which is part of why he did so few movies over the years.
It is not surprising that Harry Belafonte has died at the age of 96. Though there is that old standby joke that very few people die at that age. He was a legend of show business long before his death, one of the true greats. Still, would he mind if the way you remembered him was his weary patience with Fozzie as he sang “The Banana Boat Song”? Probably not. After all, he had enough of a sense of humour to sing “The Banana Boat Song” to Fozzie in the first place.