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Harry Belafonte has achieved lasting fame for such songs as "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," and for his humanitarian work.
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Oscar Hammerstein II had written the musical as a contemporary, African-American version of the opera Carmen, by Georges Bizet. Belafonte received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Joe, a soldier who falls for the title character, played by Dandridge.
The success of Carmen Jones made Belafonte a star,
and soon he became a music sensation. After signing with RCA Victor Records, he released Calypso (1956), an album featuring his take on traditional Caribbean folk music. "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" proved to be proved a huge hit. More than just a popular tune, it also had a special meaning for Belafonte. "That song is a way of life," Belafonte later told The New York Times. "It's a song about my father, my mother, my uncles, the men and women who toil in the banana fields, the cane fields of Jamaica."
Calypso introduced America to a new genre of music, and became the first album to sell more than one million copies. Belafonte also worked with other folk artists, including Bob Dylan and the legendary Odetta. The pair sang their version of the traditional children's song "There's a Hole in My Bucket." In 1961, Belafonte had another big hit with "Jump in the Line."
Belafonte proved to be a ground-breaker in another realm as well: He became the first African-American television producer, working on numerous musical shows. In the early 1970s, Belafonte teamed up with singer Lena Horne for a one-hour special.
By the mid-1970s, Belafonte was no longer hitting the charts. On the big screen, Belafonte had some success with his collaborations with longtime friend Sidney Poitier, including 1972's Buck and the Preacher and 1974's Uptown Saturday Night. But despite this success, Belafonte decided to take a break from movie-making. He made numerous television appearances in the 1970s and 1980s, including a guest spot on The Muppet Show, on which he sang several of his most popular songs. Belafonte also worked with Marlo Thomas on the 1974 children's special Free To Be ... You and Me.
In the 1990s, Belafonte returned to the big screen with two films. He starred with John Travolta in White Man's Burden (1995), which was a commercial and critical disappointment. The following year, Belafonte played against type as a heartless gangster in Robert Altman's Kansas City. He also appeared in 2006's Bobby, a film about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Always outspoken, Belafonte found inspiration for his activism from such figures as singer Paul Robeson; writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois; and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. In the 1950s, Belafonte met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The pair became good friends, and Belafonte emerged as a strong voice for the civil rights movement. He provided financial backing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council and participated in numerous rallies and protests. Belafonte was with King when the civil rights leader gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., and visited with him days before King was assassinated in 1968.
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