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Harry Belafonte, still singing his song.

November 3, 2011

Harry Belafonte, young and old.

I mentioned somewhere recently that Harry Belafonte, who will be at the Miami Book Fair, is still the most beautiful man in the world at age 84. But this singer, actor, and activist is much more than a pretty face.

For one thing, as he showed recently trading gentle barbs with Stephen Colbert, his wit and charisma are fully intact, and so apparently is the full range of his talent. His brief interview ends with a gorgeous impromptu a cappella duet with Colbert on his 1956 hit song, Jamaica Farewell.

Harry Belafonte discusses his career as a pioneering folk singer, actor, civil rights activist, humanitarian, and his new book, My Song, at Miami Book Fair International on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the downtown Miami campus of Miami Dade College. For a complete schedule of the hundreds of authors scheduled for this year’s event, Nov. 13-20, visit the book fair website.

For another, without Belafonte’s civic and charitable activism, we might have a different president in the White House right now. As the New York Daily News reports in a recent profile, Belafonte joined with Jackie Robinson, Sidney Poitier, and the Kennedy family to sponsor a group of Kenyans to study in the United States in 1959.

Among the Kenyans was a promising young man named Barack Obama, who met Ann Dunham at the University of Hawaii. Together, they had a son named Barack Obama Jr., and the rest is history.

But then almost everything about Belafonte’s life is historic. Born in New York in 1927, the son of a Jamaican housekeeper and a chef from Martinique, he spent part of his childhood with his grandmother in Jamaica. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he was working as a janitor’s assistant when he fell in love with the theater.

As a struggling young actor Belafonte began singing in New York clubs to pay for acting lessons. When he turned to folk music, his singing career took off. His 1956 breakthrough album, Calypso, became the first LP to sell more than a million copies. With hits like Jamaica Farewell and Day-O (Banana Boat Song), it popularized Caribbean music for the American audience.

Belafonte remained a dominant musical force until the Beatles ushered in the rock era in 1964. He sang in numerous folk and popular styles, and generously used his celebrity to boost lesser known performers, like Greek singer Nana Mouskouri and South African Miriam Makeba.

As an actor Belafonte was not quite as lucky in the roles he was offered as his pal Poitier, but still, he had a busy and distinguished film and theater career.

Almost from the start Belafonte used his fame to speak out on Civil Rights and other causes. He was a close confident to Martin Luther King Jr., and helped finance the Freedom Rider voter registration drives in Mississippi. He helped organize the celebrity singalong We Are the World to raise money for starving people in Africa.

Asked by Colbert why he didn’t just sit back and enjoy his wealth and fame, Belafonte replied:

“I had that option. When I looked at it and tried to be reasonable about what to do with so much power and adulation and profile, I thought the community from which i came would be better served if I would focus the light on what happens to people who are not quite as fortunate as we are and that I had a responsible to reach into that misfortune and try to make a difference.”

Belafonte tells about that and more in My Song. Garrison Keillor, writing in The New York Times, calls the book “a gorgeous account” of  a “large life.” “[R]ich contradictions abound,” Keillor writes, “with little attempt to explain them away, a mark of the honest autobiographer.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2011 12:29 pm

    Happy birthday you un-callow fellow.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 3, 2011 3:55 pm

      Mucho gracias.

  2. November 3, 2011 8:54 pm

    One of the greatest people I ever had a chance to meet. Might again.

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