Artists - Harry Belafonte 

Artist Biography

Harry Belafonte, the multi-talented entertainer, and human rights activist graced The Ed Sullivan Show stage 10 times with his charismatic and striking presence. Born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York, Belafonte would go on to hold the esteemed status of an EGOT holder for his Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards; A title less than 20 people in history can claim.  The first African American to win an Emmy award, Belafonte dedicated much of his life to the fight for civil rights which played a significant role in his career and even how he ultimately came to grace Ed Sullivan’s stage.

Born to Jamaican parents, Harry Belafonte played a pivotal role in introducing Caribbean music and culture to mainstream America. With hits like “The Banana Boat Song” also known as “Day-O,” a famous Jamaican folk song; Belafonte set the stage for a new wave of calypso music that became popular in the 1950s. Belafonte’s album “Calypso” reached the top of the  Billboard charts in 1956 topping Elvis on the pop charts for a staggering 31 weeks at Number One.  However, his journey in show biz began many years earlier on the New York City Theatre Circuit.  

Upon returning from his service in the Navy during World War II, Harry Belafonte’s life took a turn after attending a performance at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem.  This experience ignited his passion for the arts, leading him to train at the famous Harlem theater alongside fellow Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier and actress Ruby Dee. During this time, a new wave of method acting was being introduced to theater and soon film, with The Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City at its epicenter.  It was here that Belafonte would further train alongside fellow acting greats like Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, and Bea Arthur. The New School, during this time, ultimately would foster some of the most important artistic talents and voices in modern American theater and film.

In the early 1950s, a well-trained Belafonte worked as a jazz singer and stage actor before securing a role in the Broadway musical “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” where he earned a Tony Award in 1954. Beyond his theater achievements, Belafonte made significant strides as a film actor, starring in groundbreaking films like “Carmen Jones” (1954), opposite Dorothy Dandridge and “Island in the Sun” (1957), alongside Joan Fontaine. His role in “Island in the Sun” hinted at an interracial affair between Belafonte and Fontaine, sparking outrage in the South, even a bill was introduced in South Carolina to fine any theater showing the film. Unfortunately, this sort of discrimination would continue throughout Belafonte’s career. After winning an Emmy in 1960 for his TV special “Tonight with Belafonte,” the first Black American to win an Emmy, Belafonte secured a deal for five more TV specials with CBS.  However, the deal fell through as advertisers withdrew, demanding the separation of black and white performers on screen.  Despite losing advertisers due to his stance against segregation, Belafonte continued standing for justice on stage and in life.  Ultimately, Belafonte broke racial barriers in Hollywood and became one of the first Black performers to achieve widespread success.  

However, this widespread success was almost jeopardized when Belafonte found himself on Hollywood’s blacklist. Belafonte, an advocate for human rights and racial integration along with many other politically outspoken celebrities of the 1950s was barred from working in the film industry.  The Blacklist aimed at outing Communist party members and sympathizers nearly cost Belafonte his career. However, in 1953 when Belafonte was still relatively unknown it was Ed Sullivan who decided his fight for equality should not result in being blacklisted. Belafonte explained to the proudly Irish Sullivan that there was no difference between the struggle the Irish faced with Britain and the struggle African Americans faced with white oppressors.  This spoke to Sullivan who would go on to book Belafonte for his national television show, ultimately ending Belafonte’s time on Hollywood’s blacklist. Over the next 11 years, Belafonte would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show an impressive 10 times. 

​​During the decade of his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Belafonte formed a close bond with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. This friendship, united by a shared commitment to end racial injustice, positioned Belafonte as a significant figure in America’s civil rights movement. Leveraging his fame and financial resources, Belafonte supported numerous causes related to the movement. Some of these contributions included funding bail bonds for jailed activists in the South and financially backing the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized sit-in demonstrations throughout the segregated South. 

His dedication to human rights remained throughout Belafonte’s life as he spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and played a pivotal role in bringing Nelson Mandela on his first US trip after his release from prison. In the 1980s, he helped organize the hit all-star recording “We Are the World,” raising millions to combat starvation in Africa, and for the remainder of his long life Belafonte’s voice would leave a lasting impact far beyond the realms of the screen, and stage.

However, it was the screen and stage including The Ed Sullivan Show that provided Belafonte the platform to garner a successful impact on the fight for civil rights in America.  Showcasing legendary talents from all backgrounds The Ed Sullivan Show inadvertently became a symbol of cultural diversity. In an era when black performers faced challenges in securing spots on television, the Sullivan Show stood out by recognizing and booking talent regardless of color. Ed Sullivan’s decision to feature Belafonte, not just once but ten times over the years, reflects Sullivan’s stand on equality. Harry Belafonte’s colorful life ended on April 25th, 2023 at the age of 96.  For almost a century Belafonte not only entertained audiences but also inspired generations, and stood as a testament to the transformative power of show business and social justice. 

To watch his full performances, please check out our Harry Belafonte playlist on YouTube.