Irving Burgie, Who Wrote Calypso Hits for Harry Belafonte, Dies at 95


Irving Burgie, a singer, composer and lyricist whose songs were immortalized by Harry Belafonte during the calypso craze of the 1950s, died on Friday. He was 95.

His death was announced on Saturday by Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados. Mr. Burgie’s mother was from Barbados, and he wrote the country’s national anthem, “In Plenty and In Time of Need.”

Known professionally as Lord Burgess, Mr. Burgie (pronounced BURR-gee) was at his height in 1956 when he wrote eight of the 11 tracks on Mr. 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 a million copies, was No. 1 on the Billboard chart for 31 weeks and helped propel Mr. 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. Mr. Burgie and William Attaway wrote the lyrics for the version sung by Mr. Belafonte, which he originally performed on television on “The Colgate Comedy Hour” in 1955. It became Mr. Belafonte’s signature song.

Calypso “revolutionized music” by introducing Afro-Caribbean rhythms to the pop mainstream, Mr. 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 Mr. Belafonte, “Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean” (1957) and “Jump Up Calypso” (1961).

Mr. Burgie also wrote “Island in the Sun,” another Belafonte hit, for the 1957 movie of the same title starring Mr. Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, James Mason and Dorothy Dandridge.

Mr. Burgie had begun to establish a music career before his association with Mr. Belafonte, performing at clubs like 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 Max Gordon, the Vanguard’s owner — Lord Burgess.

“If there were an aristocracy in the world of calypso,” the 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.”

He added: “The audience had a very good time, it appeared. They understood or had previously encountered and mastered Lord Burgess’s lyrics, which are central to the style. Despite the barrier of dialect, slang and speed, he seemed a jolly and artful man who moved with his music and moved others with it.”

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 Army in 1943, he served in an all-black battalion in China, Burma and India.

It was in the Army that Mr. Burgie took a serious interest in music. “There was a guy in this outfit, Jimmy Houston, who was an alto sax player in the states,” he told American Music. “I studied with him and learned about chords and intervals.”

He began to sing in an Army chapel choir, encouraged by fellow soldiers who told him he had a good voice.

After he left the Army, the G.I. Bill opened unexpected opportunities for him. With its help, he began taking classes at night at Brooklyn College and learned about the music program at the Juilliard School in Manhattan. He auditioned there and was accepted, majoring in voice and planning to be a singer of classical music. He continued his musical education at the University of Arizona and at the University of Southern California.

After college, Mr. Burgie worked as a camp counselor and sang at camps in upstate New York, and it was at Camp Minisink, run by the Harlem-based New York City Mission Society, that he met Mr. Belafonte in the summer of 1950. With a common background — both had been born in New York City (Mr. Belafonte in Harlem) and both had parents from the Caribbean — they struck up a friendship.

“They asked Harry and me to do a number at the monthly birthday party in the dining hall the next night,” Mr. Burgie said in an interview in 2017 for this obituary. “We met and rehearsed the next afternoon, and that evening we did a duet on ‘John Henry’ that really broke up the place.”

As the folk music revival got underway in the 1950s, Mr. 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.

He also began performing at nightclubs, though he continued to write songs, including “The Seine,” “El Matador,” and “Wish You Were Here.” The Kingston Trio, Miriam Makeba and many others recorded his tunes. In 1966, when Barbados won independence, he was invited to write the lyrics for the national anthem.

Mr. Burgie’s songs have had a long life. “Jamaica Farewell,” Mr. Belafonte’s theme song, has been recorded by Jimmy Buffett, Carly Simon and others. The echoing “Day-O” from the song of the same name has become a rallying cry at Yankee Stadium and other sports arenas, and the song was memorably heard in the 1988 Tim Burton movie “Beetlejuice.”

Mr. Burgie’s educational ventures included two books, “The West Indian Song Book” (1972) and “Caribbean Carnival: Songs of the West Indies” (1993).

Mr. Burgie’s talent also landed him Off Broadway in 1963. He wrote the music and lyrics (and, with 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 United States. The show, starring Ossie Davis, ran for 74 performances at the Mayfair Theater in Midtown Manhattan.

“Mr. Burgie’s songs almost cover the gamut — they are sweet, nostalgic, torch, comic and ebullient,” Howard Taubman wrote in his review in The Times, “His lyrics vary in quality from indifferent to joyously apt, but he rarely is shy of an engaging melody, and he can unleash rhythms that provide almost as much thrust to the production numbers as a booster rocket on a launching pad.”

Mr. Burgie had been active as a performer of Caribbean folk music before the Belafonte surge, but he sidelined that career as his songs for Mr. Belafonte grew ever more popular.

But Lord Burgess did occasionally re-emerge, as he did in 1984 at Folk City in Greenwich Village. Reviewing the show in The Times, John S. Wilson wrote admiringly: “Mr. Belafonte may have gotten more than the songs from Lord Burgess. He may have gotten the manner of singing them.”

That same year, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Britain released “Island in the Sun,” an album of Mr. Burgie’s songs. Mr. Burgie released his first solo album, “Island in the Sun: The Best of Irving Burgie,” in 1996, and another, “The Father of Modern Calypso,” in 2003.

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

Mr. Burgie married Page Turner in 1956; she died in 2003. His second wife, Vivia Heron, died in 2007. His survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Irving Jr. and Andrew; one grandchild; and one great-grandchild.

A recipient of several honorary doctorates, Mr. Burgie was also given a permanent honor by the borough where he was born. His name is inscribed on the Celebrity Path at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, joining other Brooklyn luminaries like George Gershwin, Woody Guthrie and Jackie Robinson.

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