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Irving Burgie, songwriter who helped bring calypso to America, dies at 95

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Irving Burgie at his home in Queens in 2017. Burgie, who rewrote the lyrics to the traditional Jamaican song "Day-O," died Friday at the age of 95.
Irving Burgie at his home in Queens in 2017. Burgie, who rewrote the lyrics to the traditional Jamaican song "Day-O," died Friday at the age of 95.
Susan Watts | NY Daily News via Getty Images

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 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.

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