BY WALTER OPINDE
On this day, 20th June, 1960, a renowned African-American singer and actor, Harry Belafonte, was awarded an Emmy Award for his television special, Tonight with Harry Belafonte. Mr. Belafonte became the first African-American to win the prestigious industry award. He had already won a Tony Award in 1954 as a supporting actor in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.
Harry Belafonte, born on 1st March, 1927, is an American singer, songwriter, actor, and social activist. As one of the most successful African-American pop stars in history, he was dubbed the “King of Calypso” for popularizing the Caribbean musical style with an international audience in the 1950s. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) was the first million-selling LP by a single artist. Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing “The Banana Boat Song”, with its signature lyric “Day-O”. He has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards. He also starred in several films, most notably in Otto Preminger’s hit musical Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957), and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).
Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr. at Lying-in Hospital, in Harlem, New York. He is the son of Melvine (née Love), a housekeeper of Jamaican descent, and Harold George Bellanfanti, Sr., a Martinique who worked as a chef. From 1932 to 1940, Belafonte lived with one of his grandmothers in her native country of Jamaica. When he returned to New York City, he attended George Washington High School, after which, he joined the Navy and served during World War II. In the 1940s, he was working as a janitor’s assistant in NYC when a tenant gave him, as a gratuity, two tickets to see the American Negro Theater. By the end of the 1940s, he took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with the influential German director Erwin Piscator, alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, and Sidney Poitier. He also performed with the American Negro Theatre, which made him to subsequently receive a Tony Award for his participation in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.
Belafonte was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s confidants. Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for political and humanitarian causes, such as the anti-apartheid movement and USA for Africa. Since 1987, he has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. In recent years, Belafonte has been a vocal critic of the policies of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidential administrations. Harry Belafonte now acts as the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues.
Belafonte has won three Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. In 1989, he received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994. In 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy’s 6th Annual Governors Awards. By March 2014, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in Boston.
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