Irving Burgie, Songwriter Who Helped Bring Calypso To America, Dies At 95

Originally published on December 2, 2019 12:21 pm

Irving Burgie, a songwriter whose adaptation of the traditional Jamaican folk song "Day-O" became one of the definitive calypso songs of the 20th century, died on Friday. He was 95.

Burgie died as a result of complications from heart failure. His death was confirmed by his son Andrew Burgie.

Burgie performed in nightclubs as Lord Burgess, but he was best-known as a songwriter who helped Harry Belafonte bring calypso to the mainstream.

"Day-O," or as it's sometimes known, "The Banana Boat Song," was based on a Jamaican folk song and first recorded in 1952 by the Trinidadian singer Edric Connor. But Burgie reworked the lyrics for the version Belafonte would sing on the 1956 album Calypso. Belafonte's version of "Day-O" went to No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart and helped Calypso become the first full-length album ever credited with selling 1 million copies in the United States.

Burgie, whose mother was from Barbados, was born in 1924 in Brooklyn and grew up poor during the Great Depression before joining the Army. Along with thousands of other black soldiers, he built a road in North Burma during World War II. One of them taught Burgie the rudiments of music. Their unit also built a chapel, and Burgie sang in the choir. When the chapel got a new organ, Burgie kept the old one in his tent and used it to learn to play chords.

After the war he began formal music studies at Juilliard under the GI Bill. He met Belafonte in 1950; several years later Burgie sang some of his songs for writer William Attaway, a friend of Belafonte's.

In an interview with NPR earlier this year, Burgie said that Attaway called Belafonte and invited him to come to New York. "When Harry came back, we got together and I played a few songs for him. He was quite excited about all of the stuff. Before I knew it they had put together an album called Calypso."

Belafonte described "Day-O" as "a song about struggle, about black people in a colonized life doing the most grueling work," in a 2011 interview with Gwen Ifill on PBS NewsHour. "I took that song and honed it into an anthem that the world loved."

Burgie said that most people thought the song was written by Belafonte. But Burgie was listed — as Lord Burgess — in the writing credits of eight of the 11 songs on Calypso and insisted — even though Belafonte and Attaway also got credit on some of them — that they were his.

Burgie described himself as "a folklorist."

"A lot of my work is based on songs and ditties that I've heard in the Caribbean," he told NPR. By the time he was in his early 30s, he had gotten enough money from the more than 30 songs that he wrote for Belafonte that he was a wealthy man. "I was able to live on royalties," he said. "I made about $20 million over 50 years."

He gave some of that money to civil rights activists and in 1960, funded a magazine based in Harlem called The Urbanite. Byron Lewis, who worked at The Urbanite before going on to found one of the nation's first black-owned advertising agencies, says that at the time, Burgie "happened to be the only black person in Harlem who really had any money."

"Burgie is an unsung hero," Lewis says. "Part and parcel is because he never sought attention. I feel that his life really should be memorialized because he represents what you can accomplish, particularly if you're a person of color."

Burgie is regarded as a hero in Barbados, where he is well-known for writing the country's national anthem, "In Plenty and In Time of Need." Earlier this year, Burgie told NPR that he did have one more project he would like to see realized — a revival of a musical he wrote inspired by his mother's experience growing up on a sugar plantation in Barbados. He thought Rihanna, another Barbadian woman, would have been perfect for the lead.

But even if you didn't know his name, he said he was content with his career and life. "I lived in a beautiful home for 50 years, you know, and raised my two children. And, uh, they're both graduates of Yale. I've traveled the world and done just about everything I wanted to do in my lifetime," he told NPR.

And his songwriting accomplishments will live on. "Day-O" was recorded dozens more times, including recently by the cast of the musical adaptation of the movie Beetlejuice on Broadway. On Saturday, in her speech celebrating Barbados' Independence Day, the country's prime minister, Mia Amor Mottley, called for a moment of silence in Burgie's honor.

Correction: 12/01/19

An earlier Web version of this story said Irving Burgie founded The Urbanite magazine. Burgie provided funding for the publication.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Songwriter Irving Burgie died this past week. He may not have been a household name in the U.S., but he was well known in the Caribbean nation of Barbados. We'll hear why in just a moment. By some estimates, Burgie's songs have sold more than 100 million records around the world. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But he may be best known for his association with singer Harry Belafonte, whose recording of Burgie's "Day-O" went to No. 5 on the Billboard charts in 1956. Jon Kalish has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY-O")

EDRIC CONNOR: (Singing) Day-o, day-o.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: "Day-O" - or, as it's sometimes known, "The Banana Boat Song" - was based on a Jamaican folk song. It was first recorded in 1952 by the Trinidadian singer Edric Connor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY-O")

CONNOR: (Singing) Come Mr. Tallyman, tally me banana. Daylight come and me wan' go home.

KALISH: Harry Belafonte's version has different lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY-O")

HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Work all night on a drink of rum. Daylight come and me wan' go home. Stack banana till the morning come.

KALISH: Those lyrics were co-written by Irving Burgie. At the time, he was a nightclub singer who performed under the name Lord Burgess while going deep into the study of Caribbean folklore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

IRVING BURGIE: I was a folklorist. A lot of my work was based on songs and ditties that I've heard in the Caribbean.

KALISH: Burgie's mother grew up in Barbados, and he said one of the high points in his career was writing the lyrics for the Barbadian national anthem. But Burgie, who celebrated his 95th birthday in July, grew up poor in Brooklyn during the Great Depression.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BURGIE: In those days, black kids didn't have too much of a chance. You go to high school, they would try to send you to a vocational school. So I went to Brooklyn High School for Automotive Trade.

KALISH: After high school, Burgie joined the army and with thousands of other black soldiers built a road in what's now Myanmar during World War II. One of them taught Burgie the rudiments of music. After the war, he began formal music studies at Juilliard under the GI Bill. He met Harry Belafonte in 1950, and several years later, Burgie sang some of his songs for Belafonte's friend, the late writer William Attaway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BURGIE: He was quite excited about all of this stuff. Before I knew it, they I put together an album called "Calypso."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY-O")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day, me say day-o. Daylight come and me wan' go home. Day, me say day, me say day, me say day. Daylight come and me wan' go home.

KALISH: It became the first full-length album to sell a million copies in the U.S. Belafonte, who is now 92, declined to be interviewed for this story. But in 2011, he discussed the record's best-known song, "Day-O," with the late Gwen Ifill on "PBS NewsHour."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

BELAFONTE: Here was a song about struggle, about black people in a colonized life doing, of course, grueling work. And I took that song and honed it into an anthem that the world loved.

KALISH: "Day-O" became Belafonte's signature, and Burgie wrote more than 30 songs for the star.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BURGIE: Even up to today, most people think that those songs were written by Belafonte. But I wrote them.

KALISH: Burgie shares the copyright for "Day-O" with Attaway. And on the original album's physical labels on each side of the disc, Lord Burgess is listed as writer or co-writer of eight of the 11 songs. So Burgie did get royalties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BURGIE: I was able to live on royalties. I made about 20 million over the 50 years.

KALISH: He gave some of that money to civil rights activists. In 1960, he funded a Harlem magazine called The Urbanite.

BYRON LEWIS: Irving Burgie happened to be the only black person in Harlem who really had any money.

KALISH: Byron Lewis worked on The Urbanite and went on to found one of the nation's first black-owned advertising agencies.

LEWIS: Burgie is an unsung hero. Part and parcel is because he never sought attention. I feel that his life really should be memorialized because he represents what you can accomplish, particularly if you're a person of color.

KALISH: "Day-O" was included in the score of the current "Beetlejuice" musical on Broadway. And even if people don't know his name, Burgie was content with his career and his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BURGIE: I lived in a beautiful home for 50 years. You know, I raised my two children. They are both graduates of Yale. I've traveled the world, done just about everything I wanted to do in my lifetime.

KALISH: Irving Burgie had one more project he wanted to see realized - the revival of a musical he wrote that was inspired by his mother's experience growing up on a sugar plantation in Barbados. He said that Rihanna, another Barbadian woman, would have been perfect for the lead.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLAND IN THE SUN")

BURGIE: (Singing) This is my island in the sun where my people have toiled since time begun. I may sail on many a sea. Her shores will always be home to me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.