Harry Belafonte, a national treasure and beloved Upper West Side resident, died on Tuesday at the age of 96. Spokesman Ken Sunshine said the cause of death was congestive heart failure.
The legendary singer, actor, and civil rights activist was born in 1927 in Harlem to West Indian immigrants and between 1956-1958, released the first album to ever sell over one million copies (Calypso) on top of five chart topping songs: “Banana Boat,” “Island in the Sun,” “Mary’s Boy Child,” “Matilda” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Of those, “Banana Boat (Day-O)” has likely achieved the longest-lasting recognition with its combination of Caribbean melodies and catchy lyrics. It reached a new generation of fans in 1988 when it was used in a key part of the feature film Beetlejuice.
Before this chart topping musical success, he worked as an actor, starring in Carmen Jones in 1954 and Island in the Sun in 1957, the latter causing controversy at the time of its release for portraying an interracial romance between Belafonte and a white woman.
In 1959, Harry Belafonte became the first African American to win an Emmy award for the CBS variety show he hosted, “Tonight with Belafonte.”
Despite his national fame, he found it difficult finding a suitable place for his family to live. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stood up for him and wrote about his experience in her nationally syndicated newspaper column ‘My Day.’ Even with this help, he was forced to hire a white man to pose as a buyer to lease an apartment at 300 West End Avenue on the Upper West Side.
As a civil rights leader, Belafonte led marches and protests while befriending and working closely with people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., opening his home to him and other famous activists like Mrs. Roosevelt and Reverend Ralph Abernathy. He eventually moved (after nearly fifty years) to a spacious apartment above the Apple Savings Bank.
In 2011, a documentary about Belafonte called Sing Your Song was released. In 2014, he followed that up with an autobiography called My Song.
I love his music. I went to one of his NYC shows in the early 1960s It was held at a large mid-town location. He was the only performer at that event. I live near the Apple Bank on W, 73 St. Never saw him in the area.
Joshua Dudley is the first media person to note Harry Belafonte’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, an indefatigable human rights activist. She not only helped Belafonte, but enlisted him to help the disadvantaged Black and Hispanic boys of the Wiltwyck School in upstate New York.
She is rarely mentioned today or recognized for her powerfully influential work. The statue of her at 72nd Street and Riverside Drive helps keep her memory and legacy alive. Thank you, Joshua Dudley, for helping to do the same.