HE'D had no singing lessons and he couldn't read a note. But Harry Belafonte was what they call a natural, plucked from obscurity to stardom thanks to a lucky break at a New York jazz club.
At the time he was a struggling actor and his phenomenal success as a singer soon fed into Hollywood and Broadway.
Blessed with charm and good looks, by the 1960s he was a top US entertainer, living the high life in Las Vegas and rubbing shoulders with the Rat Pack.
Like all good stories this one has a twist. Belafonte was also a man on a mission, using his fame and fortune to support the forward march of civil rights.
As a member of Martin Luther King's inner circle, he also served as go-between in the movement's frustrated dealings with John and Bobby Kennedy who, though sympathetic, were initially reluctant to nail their colours to the mast.
Clearly, Belafonte's My Song is no run of the mill celebrity memoir.
It opens with a dramatic account of how he flew to Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1964 with $70,000 in a briefcase to support students working on voter registration drives.
Given that the Ku Klux Klan tried to run him off the road with their pick-up truck on his arrival, it was a dangerous mission indeed.
But he survived to deliver his precious cargo to the hundreds of awaiting volunteers, letting rip with the song that he's best known for, "Day-O, Day-O ... freedom come and it won't come long."
At the start of his career in the early 1950s, he made the decision to drop "mushy pop standards" for protest music, attracting the unwelcome attentions of the House un-American Activities Committee.
So what made Belafonte risk all to embark on a lifetime of activism?
Although he was inspired by Paul Robeson, who he'd met in 1946 as a student actor, Belafonte observes that it was his mother who "drummed" it into him to fight injustice wherever he saw it: "I wasn't an artist who'd become an activist. I was an activist who'd become an artist."
He also believes that his mother's Jamaican roots and her decision to send him to the island for part of his childhood was a crucial factor in his awakening.
Black Caribbeans bore many burdens but segregation was not one of them and Belafonte refused to accommodate the Jim Crow laws that saw him booked into the "coloured part of town."
His humble beginnings in Harlem were unpromising and he may well have continued working as a caretaker had someone not tipped him with a ticket to watch a performance of the American Negro Theatre. "The play mesmerised me," Belafonte recalls. "This was a whole new world, an exhilarating world."
He resolved to become an actor, joining a course at the New School, where fellow students included future stars Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis.
A lover of jazz music, he also became friendly with saxophonist Lester Young, who persuaded him to perform a gig at the legendary Roost to earn some spare cash.
He got plenty of attention as his backing band included jazz greats Max Roach, Al Haig and Charlie Parker.
Six years on and Belafonte was a superstar, with his third album Calypso making history as the first to sell a million copies.
He'd already appeared as the leading man in Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger's Hollywood reworking of Bizet's opera and would do so again in Island In The Sun alongside Joan Fontaine.
But Belafonte's sunny stage persona hid a "deep wellspring of anger," even as he sat in his 21-room Manhattan apartment.
When King asked him to come on board the "freedom train" in 1956, he didn't hesitate. What's more, he managed to mobilise Hollywood's glitterati to the cause, getting the likes of Brando, Paul Newman, Tony Bennett and Shelley Winters to attend the 1963 March on Washington.
There's no doubting Belafonte's courage and sincerity. His political passion is undimmed by the years as he offers his trenchant views on all manner of subjects, from the Iraq war to President Obama.
My Song is an absorbing read, as much an account of a momentous period in US history as one man's extraordinary story.
Judged besides today's vacuous celebrity culture, it's like a breath of fresh air.
This review first appeared in Camden New Journal www.camdennewjournal.com.
If you appreciated this article then please consider donating to the Morning Star's Fighting Fund to ensure we can keep developing your paper.