Harry Belafonte, who stormed the pop charts and smashed racial barriers in the 1950s with his highly personal brand of folk music, and who went on to become a dynamic force in the civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 96.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Ken Sunshine, his longtime spokesman.
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. He was not the first Black entertainer to transcend racial boundaries; Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and others had achieved stardom before him. But none had made as much of a splash as he did, and for a while no one in music, Black or white, was bigger.
Born in Harlem to West Indian immigrants, he almost single-handedly ignited a craze for Caribbean music with hit records like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” His album “Calypso,” which included both those songs, reached the top of the Billboard album chart shortly after its release in 1956 and stayed there for 31 weeks. Coming just before the breakthrough of Elvis Presley, it was said to be the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies.