Despite a dazzling film and recording career that spanned the better part of the Twentieth century, and has extended (with occasional film activity) well into the Twenty-first, venerable African American entertainer Harry Belafonte is still best known as "The King of the Calypso." This title -- and Belafonte's concomitant crossover appeal to black and white audiences -- is even more astonishing for first happening over ten years before the Civil Rights movement took full swing.
Born March 1, 1927 in poverty-stricken Harlem to first-generation Jamaican immigrants, Belafonte emigrated with his mother back to Jamaica at eight years old, and returned to New York at age thirteen. Midway through high school, he dropped out and enlisted in the Navy. Upon discharge, the young man studied and performed at the Actors Studio (alongside such legends as Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando), Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research, and The American Negro Theater. A singing role in a theatrical piece led to a string of cabaret engagements, and before long, Belafonte's success enabled him to secure funding to open his own nightclub. His recording career officially began at the age of 22, in 1949, when he presented himself as a pop singer along the lines of Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra, but in time he found a more unique niche by delving headfirst into the Library of Congress's archive of folk song recordings and studying West Indian music. What emerged was a highly unique (and unprecedented) blend of pop, jazz and traditional Caribbean rhythms.