Caribbean American Day-O Songwriter Dead At 95

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Irving Louis Burgie attendED the Broadway Opening Night Performance for "Beetlejuice" at The Wintergarden on April 25, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)
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News Americas, NEW YORK, NY., Mon. Dec. 2, 2019: The Caribbean- American singer and songwriter, who wrote ‘Day-O’ and most of the songs on the ‘Calypso’ album by Harry Belafonte, passed away at 95 at his home in Queens, NY on Nov. 29th, a day before the independence anniversary of his mother’s homeland of Barbados.

The Brooklyn-born Irving Louis Burgie, who performed in nightclubs as Lord Burgess and was listed in writing credits by the same name, died as a result of complications from heart failure, his son Andrew Burgie confirmed to NPR.

His mother, Viola Calendar, was born in Barbados, and his father, Louis Burgie, was from Virginia. He grew up hearing Caribbean music in his home and went on to graduate from the 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 Burgie took a serious interest in music and 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, and 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, he went on to establish a music career in the 1950s, performing at clubs like the Blue Angel in Chicago and the Village Vanguard in New York in 1954 as Lord Burgess.

Lord Burgess at The Blue Angel in Chicago in 1953.

He also 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 Belafonte in the summer of 1950 and the two became friends.

In 1956, Burgie wrote eight of the 11 tracks on Belafonte’s celebrated album. The album, 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 Belafonte to stardom and take calypso music globally.

One of the biggest hits from the album was “Day-O” also knowns as “The Banana Boat Song,” was based on a Jamaican folk song. Burgie and 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 then became Belafonte’s signature song.

Irving Burgess with students in Rome.

“Day-O” was recorded dozens more times, including recently by the cast of the musical adaptation of the movie ‘Beetlejuice’ on Broadway. Burgie attended the opening in April.

Burgie also worked on two other albums with Belafonte including “Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean” (1957) and “Jump Up Calypso” (1961). He also wrote “Island in the Sun,” another Belafonte hit, for the 1957 movie of the same title starring Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, James Mason and Dorothy Dandridge.

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.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Britain released “Island in the Sun,” an album of Burgie’s songs. Burgie then 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 Burgie was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

On Saturday, Nov. 30th, 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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