Harry Belafonte's journey to the top
Harry Belafonte caught the nation's ear with the hit song "Mathilda." And alongside his long career in music and film he's often tried to catch the social conscience of the nation as well. Russ Mitchell has this Sunday Profile:
At age 84, Harry Belafonte still enjoys a visit to his old haunts, like New York's Greenwich Village.
"Good memories when you come here?" asks CBS' Russ Mitchell.
"Mostly mischief," Belafonte tells him. "Lotta mischief!"
"Oh, do tell," Mitchell prompts.
And what stories he has. For Harry Belafonte's been at it now for more than six decades - as an actor, activist and singer of a song or two. In fact, he is the first recording artist to ever top the charts with a million album sales. But as he explains in his new book, "My Song," life didn't start easy.
"You say that poverty was a constant companion growing up," says Mitchell.
"Constant companion, and it still nourishes my thinking," says Belafonte. "It still nourishes my passion."
Born Harold George Belafonte Jr. in New York City to immigrant parents from the Caribbean, Belafonte says that as a child, they were so poor that his mother, a domestic worker, sent him and his brother to live for years in her native Jamaica.
"It gave me a lot to work with in life, but the experience in the first instance was that my mother took us and she left," Belafonte says.
He returned to New York and, at age 17 and a high school dropout, Belafonte joined the Navy to fight in World War II.
"Great experience," says Belafonte.
"What did it teach you?"
"Took me out of the rough and tough of the streets of Harlem and it gave me an environment where things were disciplined," says Belafonte. "There was an objective. There was a purpose. There was an enemy."
And there was the hope that the discrimination Belafonte says he experienced as a black man would end with the war.
"I came back home to find out that nothing had changed," he says. "Black people were still being lynched, were still being denied. We were still being cruelly relegated to second-class experiences."
He became a janitor at a Harlem apartment building. One day a tenant gave him an unusual tip for doing a repair.
"It was two tickets to this theater," Belafonte recalls. "I'd never seen the theater before. And I walked in to see what was going on and it was an epiphany, something so inordinately powerful just sucked me in."
Belafonte was hooked. He began taking acting classes.
"When I walked into my class on the first day and I saw my classmates, I saw a group of the greatest misfits I'd ever seen," he says. "There was a guy named Marlon Brando, a guy named Walter Matthau, a woman named Bea Arthur and then, a very pretty kid named Tony Curtis.
"We all looked at one another wondering, 'You're aspiring to be in the theatre?'" Belafonte laughs. "'You'll never make it,' was the thoughts of each. But look at what turned out."
He sang to pay for classes.
"When did you start singing?" Mitchell asks.
"I always sang as a kid. Everybody did in Jamaica. Growing up you sing everywhere. Singing was our recreation," Belafonte remembers.
Jazz standards paid the bills, but Belafonte says that the memory of the traditional songs of his childhood made him hungry to explore folk music.
"I went to the Library of Congress and endlessly listened to tapes and created a repertoire...Haitian folk songs, Spanish folk songs, et cetera, et cetera. And I built this repertoire."
"In many ways, this is where it all started for you, right?" asks Mitchell, of New York City's famed Village Vanguard, where Belafonte tried out his material.
"Me and for a lot of other wonderful artists," he says. "And it was in place that the approval of this audience and those who came after charted my course and gave me validation as a singer."
"From a jazz singer to a folk singer?" asks Mitchell.
Belafonte landed a recording contract and in 1956 released "Calypso," a collection of Caribbean songs.
"Were you surprised at the success of Calypso?" asks Mitchell.
"I didn't quite understand what had happened," says Belafonte. "'Cause it was not slated to go anywhere other than to satisfy a tenacious appetite I had for wanting to do that album."
But the album went EVERYWHERE, hitting a million in sales and launching a song, Day-O, high into pop culture orbit.
"Wow, the world was singing my song," remembers Belafonte.
"Can you walk down the street without someone saying, "Harry Belafonte, sing Day-O,'?"
"No, not only someone in the street but I can't walk into a courthouse where the judge won't say it. I mean, it is just amazing," he says.
The song was immortalized in Tim Burton's 1988 film "Beetlejuice" - and even got the Muppet treatment.
"When they got through really giving 'Day-O' a challenge it was, God it was just absolutely delicious," says Belafonte. "And I built on that, to do 'Island of the Sun' and do all the songs which became very popular globally."
That voice - those looks -were too much for Hollywood to pass up, and Belafonte was cast in films like "Island in the Sun." Yet Hollywood as a town, Belafonte says, didn't know what to do with its new black star.
"They're casting you in movies where you're the leading man, the leading lady is white. You guys are supposed to have a relationship --"
"--but you can't kiss."
"That's right," recalls Belafonte.
Belafonte says studio executives for the film "The World, The Flesh and the Devil" were alarmed at the chemistry between him and his co-star.
"They pulled the script and said, 'We have to do a rewrite and fix this thing. And when we came back I saw that the last half of the script had been completely destroyed. All romance taken out...And I was just furious," he says. "So my thought was, you can't change Hollywood. What you've got to do is change America."
So Belafonte began to spend more time on social causes. And there's one cause, and one man, Martin Luther King, Jr, that Belafonte remembers above all others. It began with a phone call.
"He said, 'Mr. Belafonte, my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.,' and I couldn't quite believe it. I said, 'Yes.'"
"He said, 'You don't know me, but...' and he started to tell me something," Belafonte remembers. "'Dr. King, I know who you are. I think the whole world is getting to know who you are.' And then he asked to meet with me."
They spoke for four hours. King asked for his help.
"And I told him at the end of that meeting that I would be in his service for as long as it took," he remembers.
Belafonte became one of King's confidants and a big contributor to the civil rights movement, helping to organize the March on Washington.
When King was assassinated in 1968, Belafonte grieved the loss of a friend.
"My brain was reeling with, what do we do? Where do we go from here? What's next? And what's next without him?" he says.
In the years that followed, Belafonte threw himself into humanitarian work. Witnessing famine first-hand in Africa, he had an idea.
"And I said, 'The cultural community needs to step to the plate. We need to let our voices be heard. After all, we possess so much power.'"
So he helped to gather some of the biggest recording artists of the 1980s to perform "We Are the World," raising millions for famine relief.
"It was a night of great joy, a night of great thrill," he says.
During a recording break, the famous singers even broke into a spontaneous version of Belafonte's signature song.
And Belafonte began to speak out, sometimes stridently, about US foreign policy.
"I think that the patriotic citizen is commanded and demanded to raise his or her voice on issues that he thinks are to the best interest of the nation," he says. "And that's what I do. I have a platform. I speak out."
"Are you an easy guy to live with?" asks Mitchell.
"I'd suggest you ask one of my wives that question," Belafonte responds.
Twice divorced and a father of four, Belafonte lives with his third wife, Pamela. And this singer and actor and witness to history pronounces himself a content man.
"Eighty four years young. Sounds like life is pretty good for Harry Belafonte?" asks Mitchell.
"Well, if it could be much better, I'd be hard pressed to define what that could be," he says.
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