Irving Burgiebehind Day-O for singer Harry Belafonte

The late Irving Burgie was known professionally as Lord Burgess.
The late Irving Burgie was known professionally as Lord Burgess. PHOTOS: IRVINGBURGIE.COM

NEW YORK• Irving Burgie, a singer, composer and lyricist, whose songs were immortalised by singer Harry Belafonte during the calypso craze of the 1950s, died last Friday in Brooklyn. He was 95.

Burgie's death was confirmed by his son Andrew.

Known professionally as Lord Burgess, Burgie was at his height in 1956 when he wrote eight of the 11 tracks on Belafonte's celebrated album Calypso, among them Jamaica Farewell, I Do Adore Her and Dolly Dawn.

The album, said to be the first by a single artist to sell more than one million copies, was No. 1 on the Billboard chart for 31 weeks. It helped propel Belafonte to stardom and make calypso music known internationally.

One of the biggest hits from the album was Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), based on a Jamaican folk song. Burgie and novelist William Attaway wrote the lyrics for the version sung by Belafonte, which he originally performed on television on The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1955. It became Belafonte's signature song.

Calypso revolutionised music by introducing Afro-Caribbean rhythms to the pop mainstream, Burgie told the journal American Music in 2016.

"The combination of me as the writer and Belafonte as the performer took off," he said.

He went on to work on two more albums with Belafonte: Belafonte Sings Of The Caribbean (1957) and Jump Up Calypso (1961).

Burgie also wrote Island In The Sun, another Belafonte hit, for the 1957 movie of the same title starring Belafonte, Joan Fontaine and James Mason.

Burgie had begun to establish a music career before his association with Belafonte, performing at clubs such as the Blue Angel in Chicago in 1953 and the Village Vanguard in New York in 1954.

In the calypso tradition of adopting a flamboyant stage name, he became - at the suggestion of Mr Max Gordon, the Vanguard's owner - Lord Burgess.

"If there were an aristocracy in the world of calypso," critic Robert Shelton wrote in The New York Times in 1968, reviewing a concert by Lord Burgess at Carnegie Hall, where he performed with a six-piece band and a dancing chorus, "Lord Burgess would be one of the reigning figures."

Irving Louis Burgie was born not in the Caribbean, as most calypso entertainers of his era were, but in Brooklyn, on July 28, 1924.

He was a second-generation West Indian American; his mother, Viola Calendar, was from Barbados and his father, Louis Burgie, was from Virginia. He grew up hearing Caribbean music in his home.

He graduated from Automotive High School in Brooklyn in 1941. Drafted into the United States Army in 1943, he served in an all-black battalion in China, Burma and India.

It was in the army that Burgie took a serious interest in music. He began to sing in an army chapel choir, encouraged by fellow soldiers who told him he had a good voice.

After Burgie left the army, the GI Bill, which gave World War II veterans access to a college education, opened unexpected opportunities for him.

With its help, he began taking night classes at Brooklyn College and learnt about the music programme at the Juilliard School in Manhattan.

He auditioned there and was accepted, majoring in voice and planning to be a singer of classical music.

After college, he worked as a camp counsellor and sang at camps in upstate New York.

It was at Camp Minisink, run by the Harlem-based New York City Mission Society, that he met Belafonte in the summer of 1950.

With a common background - both had been born in New York City and had parents from the Caribbean - they struck up a friendship.

As the folk music revival got under way in the 1950s, Burgie was inspired to write songs based on the traditional Caribbean songs he had heard in his childhood and on the songs he had discovered in his extensive research into the genre.

His educational ventures included two books, The West Indian Song Book (1972) and Caribbean Carnival: Songs Of The West Indies (1993).

Burgie's talent also landed him off-Broadway in 1963. He wrote the music and lyrics - and, with playwright Loften Mitchell, the book - for Ballad For Bimshire, a musical set in Barbados. It explores racism, nationalism and colonialism, while telling the story of a teenage girl and her dream to come to the US. The show, starring Ossie Davis, ran for 74 performances at the Mayfair Theatre in Midtown Manhattan.

Day-O!!!: The Autobiography Of Irving Burgie was published in 2007, the same year Burgie was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Burgie married Page Turner in 1956; she died in 2003. His second wife, Vivia Heron, died in 2007.

Besides his son Andrew Burgie, his survivors include another son, Irving Burgie Jr; one grandchild and one great-grandchild.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2019, with the headline 'Irving Burgiebehind Day-O for singer Harry Belafonte'. Print Edition | Subscribe