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'Fresh Air' remembers Harry Belafonte, singer, actor and civil rights icon



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Harry Belafonte, the famous singer, actor, producer and civil rights activist, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 96. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with him in 1993. His obituary in The New York Times said, quote, "at a time when segregation was still widespread and Black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, Mr. Belafonte's ascent to the upper echelon of show business was historic," unquote.

In an appreciation in the Times, Wesley Morris described Belafonte as a folk hero, quote, "he understood how to dedicate his fame to a politics of accountability more tenaciously than any star of the civil rights era or in its wake. He helped underwrite the Civil Rights Movement, paying for freedom rides. He maintained a life insurance policy on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Coretta Scott King as the beneficiary because Dr. King didn't believe he could afford it," unquote. Belafonte helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, at which Dr. King gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. Harry Belafonte first became known in the U.S. as a singer with his 1956 hits "Jamaica Farewell" and "The Banana Boat Song." He popularized calypso in America.


HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day, is a day, is a day, is a day, is a day, is a day-o. Daylight come, and we want go home. Work all night on a drink of rum. Daylight come, and we want go home. Stack banana till the morning come. Daylight come, and we want go home. Come mister tally man, tally me banana. Daylight come, and we want go home. Come mister tally man, tally me banana. Daylight come, and we want go home. Lift six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch. Daylight come, and we want go home. Six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch. Daylight come, and we want go home. Day, is a day-o. Daylight come, and we want go home. Day...

GROSS: In the 1950s, Belafonte started his film career starring in such movies as "Carmen Jones" and "Odds Against Tomorrow." But there were few roles for Black actors then. And in the '60s, Belafonte shifted his attention to the Civil Rights Movement while continuing to act and to appear on TV. He was born in New York to a Jamaican mother and a father from Martinique. When he was 5, his mother sent him to Jamaica. He told me why when we spoke in 1993.


BELAFONTE: Well, my mother was - my father was constantly away. She was, for all intents and purposes, a single parent. She was a domestic worker, a woman who was struggling to get over as an immigrant in this country. Her children were left to the whims of the neighborhood and to the streets of New York. And at a very early age, I was hit by an automobile...


BELAFONTE: ...And was unconscious for a couple of days at - in Harlem Hospital. And that sent a horror through my mother. And she felt that I would perhaps be safer in the mountains of Jamaica than I would be in the streets of New York and sent my brother and myself there.

GROSS: What did you think of the idea of going to Jamaica?

BELAFONTE: Well, I didn't mind the idea of going to Jamaica. What really bothered me was the fact that my mother had to leave us there. And once again, there we were, thrust into the midst of strangers and people whom we didn't know and having to make it on our own, so to speak. And plus, the fact that we never stayed in one place very long. My brother and I were quite nomadic. We just went from place to place and never really established a sense of community and never stayed long enough with one family to have ourselves in some centered place.

GROSS: Were the families that you stayed with part of your extended family, or were they strangers?

BELAFONTE: Both. Both extended family, as well as some strangers.

GROSS: Why didn't you stay in one place for a long time?

BELAFONTE: I think it was a matter of economics. I think some people found two additional children to their own families a bit of a burden. They were poor, so we were constantly shifted from place to place so that others could help share the responsibility. Some places we were just very unhappy in and didn't want to stay and were sent to other places.

GROSS: Now, how did you get back to New York?

BELAFONTE: Well, the war broke out between England and Germany. My mother was convinced that - like many people were - that the invincible Nazi machine was going to soon conquer England. And what would happen to all of the English possessions, all of their colonies? And she feared for that and then brought us back home when I was 12, and I've been living in America ever since.

GROSS: Was it hard to readjust to Harlem?

BELAFONTE: Very hard. I had an accent from the Caribbean, and I looked different. And I had this dyslexic problem that I couldn't adjust to the schools that I was in, and my mother seemed to have - has been very much part of that shifting from place to place to place to place. We lived all over the city within the ghetto in which we were forced to live, and we moved from one neighborhood to another neighborhood, and my mother was always chasing work and chasing places where she thought we would have better accommodations for less money. So we were constantly on the move.

GROSS: So how were you first exposed to theater?

BELAFONTE: When I came out of the Second World War, I was kind of looking for where to go and what to do. And in the interim, I became a janitor's assistant in a building, and I repaired the Venetian blinds in the apartment of a young woman by the name of Clarice Taylor, who was known by many people as the mother of Mr. Huxtable on "The Bill Cosby Show." And she played the Good Witch in "The Wiz." She was the tenant in the apartment. And I repaired the Venetian blinds. She gave me two tickets to a play at a community theater called the American Negro Theatre, which was at the Harlem Public Library. And I'd never been to the theater before, and I had this opportunity, so I went. And when the lights went down and the curtain opened and the players walked on, a whole new world opened up for me, and I was deeply touched and moved by it. That's how I got into theater.

GROSS: Could you explain what it was that really reached you about the performance?

BELAFONTE: I saw people of color on a stage articulating a point of view on a subject. And I found it quite magical. And I - mostly, I saw people in motion doing things that were very positive and very creative. And I loved the rhythm of the playwright, the way the language flowed or the way people answered and spoke to one another. I became totally involved. As a matter of fact, at the end of the play, I went back to thank her for the ticket, and I had to stand with a long line of people 'cause it was the closing night of the play. And it was a repertory format, and they were getting ready to set up the next play and were taking down the sets.

So I pitched in to help take down the sets. And - because I could - I was good with my hands. And I didn't start off wanting to be a performer, I started off just wanting to be involved. And then they came up with a play for the techs to begin to dismantle, to find out how to make us build a set for it. And the play was Sean O'Casey's "Juno And The Paycock." And I became exposed to this Irish playwright, who was, I thought, one of the most incredible writers that I'd ever read. And I had not read that much up to that point.

GROSS: So when you started to study acting, how did you work on yourself to kind of transform yourself into an actor both in terms of the craft but also in terms of the type of person you thought an actor needed to be?

BELAFONTE: Well, when we got the play, my job was to work with a group of young men and women to build sets, and they needed someone to play the young male lead in the play. And they didn't have anybody within - either in the school at the American Negro Theater or - and those who had auditioned they found were somewhat unacceptable. So they asked me would I play it. And I just - and in the spirit of teamwork, I accepted being a performer to perform this part. And when I had to learn the words and then get into the play, then I was deeply touched by the fact that I now had an opportunity to interpret and to articulate the words of this great writer.

And I wanted to do more of that, and I wanted to become proficient in the ability to be able to do that. And in order to acquire this proficiency, I had to go to an institution that was committed fully and solely to this. And it was the New School of Social Research. Irwin Piscator, who ran the school, was a German Jew who had escaped Hitler. He was at the Max Reinhardt Theater in Germany. He introduced us to Bertolt Brecht and to Jean-Paul Sartre, and he brought a richness of literature and culture to the school. Many people sought to be in his class, and among my classmates were Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Tony Curtis - just a bunch of us, all young kids just starting out, young men and women wanting to be in theater. And it was in that environment that I developed this great love and comfortability, really, with the idea of being an actor.

GROSS: Once you fell in love with theater and then got your theater training and developed into an actor, were you able to find parts?

BELAFONTE: No. That was the irony of it all. I then had to deal with racial reality. No matter how much I loved this thing, if I didn't play in the American Negro Theater or once every millennium when a Black play came along, most of which were musicals, there would be no opportunity, really, on a full-time basis. So I was quite prepared to flirt with the theater and to do as much as I could in it while looking for some work that would give me the opportunity to pay the rent. Before I could even deal with that, I ran out of the federal subsidy that was given to us to learn, to be in this school.

GROSS: From the G.I. Bill.

BELAFONTE: Yeah, G.I. Bill of Rights. And what happened was that I was a frequent visitor and a devotee of jazz and a frequent visitor to a place called the Royal Roost. And I went there nightly because our school was only two blocks away from the nightclub in the middle of the heart of Broadway. And I struck up a friendship with a young man named Monte Kay. And he was the promoter and the impresario for everything that went on in that club. And he had heard me sing in a school play only as an exercise for the play. And he then said to me, well, I've heard you sing. Why don't you learn a few songs? Come in to the club. I'll make you an intermission singer. And during that time you'll be able to make enough money to continue to pursue your studies in the school if the school will then give you a scholarship.

And I went to the administrators of the school, and they gave me a scholarship, and I started to sing to pay my way through school. The singing then got so popular, and people responded so strongly to it that I feared that it would take me away from the theater. And I didn't consider myself a significantly important jazz singer. I didn't find that pop music particularly moved me to the places that I wanted to go after this heavy encounter with Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Chekov and all the things we were doing as students.

So I quit, and - singing, and I opened up a small restaurant with a couple of other friends with the money that I'd saved called The Sage in Greenwich Village. And while there, studying during the day and working at night, I discovered the Village Vanguard, a nightclub in New York, which was rich with folk artists. And I discovered Leadbelly, and I discovered Big Bill Broonzy. And I discovered Pete Seeger. I discovered Woody Guthrie. And much to my amazement and delight, I discovered Josh White. I saw these men and women singing songs that came from all walks of life. It wasn't just songs about unrequited love. They were filled with drama. They were filled with characters. They were filled with parables and metaphor. And I saw in that the opportunity to apply my acting skills. And since I had a voice that was fairly comfortable to listeners, then I would then have the instrument to be able to do this. And I began to develop a repertoire. And with that, I then opened at the Village Vanguard, and I just haven't looked back since.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Harry Belafonte in 1993. Let's pause for a song from his 1958 album "Belafonte Sings The Blues."


BELAFONTE: (Singing) Well, hello, Mary Ann. You know, you sure look fine. Well, hello, Mary Ann. You know, you sure look fine. Well, hello, Mary Ann. I could love you all the time. Oh, Mary Ann, I say, baby, don't you know? Oh, Mary Ann, well, baby, don't you know? Don't you know, don't you know, pretty baby, that I love you so?

GROSS: We'll hear more of my 1993 interview with Harry Belafonte after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Harry Belafonte in 1993. He died Tuesday at the age of 96.


GROSS: You were really one of the first people from the entertainment world to become active within the civil rights movement. Was there a period that was a turning point or a consciousness-raising period for you?

BELAFONTE: Yes, when I was born.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

BELAFONTE: And it was later on exercised even more when the war came, Second World War, and I got into it. And America propagandized us about ending totalitarianism and ending fascism, and ending racial superiority and ending anti-Semitism, and making the world perfect for a meaningful future. And I believed that. And when I came back to my home after having done a tour of duty and the war ended, we expected that there was going to be some reward for all that we had done, just little things like taking down the segregation signs as a gift to those of us who fought to make America safe and to end the world with, you know, from - end the world's tyranny. And that didn't happen. The option was to acquiesce and to go back to business as usual or to use our strength and our energy to make sure that America would never be comfortable in going back to business as usual. And I decided that that's what I would do as an artist and as a human being and as a person. That was when my activism started.

A lot of people who did not know that part of my life have made assumptions that it wasn't until I became famous that I then turned to social and political activity. But that's not true. Paul Robeson was a mentor of mine. I tried to pattern my life after what I saw him do, his dignity, his strength, his courage. Dr. Du Bois was someone whom I sought out. I met him accidentally, and I sought him out afterwards and listened to him speak and listened to his thoughts. He was one of the greatest intellects that this country ever produced and certainly one of the greatest in the Black community. And in that environment, these men were great social thinkers. Eleanor Roosevelt became a friend of mine. She, too, had her own thoughts on social and political conditions.

GROSS: How did you meet Martin Luther King?

BELAFONTE: He called me. I was in New York. And he was coming here to visit for the first time in Harlem at Adam Clayton Powell's church, the Abyssinian. He was talking to a group of people from the clergy and asked would I meet him after that meeting. And I said, yes. And we met in the basement of the church.

GROSS: And you became pretty good friends?

BELAFONTE: Very good friends, became very, very close after I spoke to him in the room and he told me of his mission and what he hoped to be able to achieve, albeit he didn't know quite where the path would lead us. But he knew that it was a fight that had to be made. And he needed everyone he could get and asked me if I would join. I said, yes, I would.

GROSS: You're about to perform in New York. How do you feel about the old songs that you recorded in the '50s?

BELAFONTE: I feel very good about them. I thought they were songs that were very much instructive. I thought they brought people to places that they had never been before. And I think it make them take focus on a group of people in a region that they perhaps knew nothing about. Paul Robeson once said to me, get people to sing your song and they must - then they'll be required to know who you are.

GROSS: There's a certain raspiness to your speaking voice. Does that come through in your singing voice, too, now?

BELAFONTE: No, because I engage different muscles. When I sing, my diaphragm kicks in more fully and I project more fully. I'm prone to talk softly. And air escapes because of a tilted larynx, which I have, which permits air to come out in a free-flow, uncontrolled way that I would not ordinarily have were my larynx straight. But it was an act of birth. And as a matter of fact, the print of my voice I like very much. It's like Louis Armstrong or others who have a voice that's just very different from everyone else's. And what it forced me to do was to interpret material in a way that would accommodate this impediment or this imperfection, and therefore gave me a very unique approach to my singing that people liked. And I loved it. And I took great confidence in the fact that one did not need - I think if you've got it, you should sound like a Pavarotti or sound like a Leontyne Price or whatever. But when I heard people like Walter Huston sing, who had a gruffy voice, and when I listened to other singers, I was confident that I could move comfortably in the world of art and be accepted for what I was.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for telling us some of your story. Thank you very much for being with us.

BELAFONTE: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Harry Belafonte was recorded in 1993. He died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 96. After we take a short break, we'll hear from a doula who works with pregnant women, whether they plan on giving birth or having an abortion. And David Bianculli will review the new eight-episode drama "Fatal Attraction," a reworking of the 1987 film of the same name. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


BELAFONTE: (Singing) Hey. Matilda, Matilda, Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Once again now. Matilda, Matilda, Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Five hundred dollars, friends, I lost. Woman even sell me cat and horse. Hey, Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Everybody. Matilda. Sing out the chorus. Matilda. Sing a little louder. Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Once again now. Matilda - going around the corner. Matilda. Sing out the chorus. Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela.


Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.