Harry Belafonte's journey to the top

Harry Belafonte. CBS

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.

"Right."

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.

  • Russ Mitchell

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