A report by Jared McCallister for the New York Daily News.
Elvis’ swiveling hips, rock ’n’ roll, and a hit parade of pop and country ruled the 1956 music scene when a seemingly modest Caribbean calypso album struck “gold” for Brooklyn-born songwriter Irving Burgie.
And the music industry was forever changed.
The album was singer Harry Belafonte’s groundbreaking “Calypso,” the first million-selling album by a single artist in history. And Burgie’s tunes — eight of the long-playing album’s 11 songs — fueled phenomenal sales figures and set a new industry benchmark.
Known for the popular versions of the timeless “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” “Jamaica Farewell” and others, Burgie’s musical creations have made it onto the Billboard charts, into Hollywood films and even into outer space.
He is not resting on his laurels.
“I’ve lived a wonderful life,” Burgie reminisced recently. “My two boys both graduated from Yale University. I’ve really been around the world a couple of times with my family, in a leisurely manner,” he said, linking his good fortune to his continued successes.
With a lifetime of accomplishments already logged, Burgie, who turns 93 on Friday, has set some new goals — an album featuring of some of the songs he wrote for Belafonte, starting a music program for school children, and making a musical film he’d like superstar singer Rihanna star in.
“I’m working with a musical I’ve been nursing all these years,” he said of “Ballad for Bimshire.” He’s crafting a screenplay version of the 1963 off-Broadway show that was set in Barbados and starred Ossie Davis. Burgie is hoping Rihanna might get involved.
“I’m trying to make a connection with Rihanna,” he said. “I want her to star in it.”
His Caribbean connections may strike a chord with the Barbados-born songstress. Burgie’s mother was a native of Barbados — and he penned the national anthem for the former British colony.
A member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, his songs have sold well around the world and they’ve been covered by famous performers, including Jimmy Buffett, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, Carly Simon, Chuck Berry, and Sam Cooke, but Burgie’s initial fame is tied to Belafonte, “Calypso” and “Day-O.”
Belafonte, a handsome folk singer, was already headed to stardom with a 1955 hit album when “Calypso,” propelled by “Day-O,” shook the industry the following year. Under his stage name, Lord Burgess, Burgie wrote more than 30 songs for the increasingly popular Belafonte, on three albums from the 1956 to the early 1960s.
Before it appeared on the “Calypso” album, Burgie’s version of “Day-O” (co-written by William Attaway) was originally created for a Belafonte performance on the Colgate Comedy Hour television variety show.
As he did with “Jamaica Farewell,” Burgie wrote new lyrics for “Day-O,” creating the now famous version from a traditional Caribbean folk song.
“It’s been used in all types of situations — baseball games, football games, basketball games — besides show business,” the songwriter said about “Day-O” — named one of the select “Top 365 Songs of the Twentieth Century,” by the Recording Industry Association of America and recognized with the “Song of the Century Award” from Cherry Lane Music publishers and the Sunshine Music Awards. “And of course you, remember the ‘Beetlejuice’ thing,” he said excitedly about “Day-O’s” use in the 1988 Oscar-winning Tim Burton film, starring Michael Keaton. The song was the key element of the movie soundtrack and a memorable scene when ghost-possessed dinner guests sing, dance and sway around the table to the calypso tune.
The song was so popular it even had listeners in outer space. It was twice used as a NASA-transmitted wakeup call to rouse sleeping Space Shuttle astronauts, in 1990 and 1997.
A native New Yorker, he was born in 1924 in a Brooklyn apartment, with the help of a midwife. Viola Calendar, his mother, was an immigrant from Barbados who found employment as a domestic worker. His father, Louis Burgie, came to New York from a small town in Virginia, and worked as a day laborer at a slaughter house.
As a youngster, he was a typical city kid when outdoors — taking swims at the Coney Island beach, playing stickball, punch ball, stoop ball and other street games. But the atmosphere in his “West Indian” home was less playful for Burgie, his older sister and younger brother.
“West Indian parents considered the American way of life too loose compared to West Indian standards. Since my mother ran the household, we were strongly influenced by aspects of the culture of the West Indies,” Burgie wrote in his 2007 autobiography. “Kids (of West Indian parents) kept out of trouble, not for fear of the police, but for fear of their parents.”
Burgie had some early brushes with music — in school and a drum and bugle corps — while growing up. But music got serious for him after returning from a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, serving in an all-black battalion in World War II’s “China, Burma India Theater” in Asia. He used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend New York’s prestigious Juilliard School and two universities, majoring in voice. And he learned to play guitar.
“During my entire college education, four years, I studied nothing but the classics, no pop. My mother was from Barbados, so I got involved with folk.”
Before his collaboration with Belafonte began, Burgie took his folk music act on the road. His “first really main gig” was at Chicago’s Blue Angel nightclub. He also performed at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan in shows featuring famed Jamaican folklorist Louise (Miss Lou) Bennett.
He’s traveled and entertained audiences around the world, but family life for Burgie took place in Hollis, Queens, where he settled with his first wife, Page Turner, in the 1950s and raised two sons, Irving and Andrew. Turner died in 2003.
With his second wife, Vivia Heron, Burgie gave cultural and musical presentations at New York area public schools from 1973 to 1980. Heron died in 2007.
Burgie wants to use a songbook of his hit tunes to create classroom lessons and activities for educators and their students.
Living in Queens during the civil rights movement, Burgie aided the national crusade by organizing the Coalition for Political Representation organization in southeast Queens and serving on a local NAACP board. And through his calypso lyrics, he has tried to link the civil rights struggle to the Caribbean colonies’ quest for independence, in contrast to the verses of double entendres and sexual innuendos weaved into some calypso songs.
“I gave an image of their lives, their homes, and their homeland,” he said of the longtime colonies inching toward independence at the time.
“I was the first one writing about these people trying to gain their own lives. They wanted their own country. And that’s what my songs were all about,” he explained, using lyrics from his 1957 song, “Island in the Sun,” as an example:
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.
Burgie has music, books, photos and videos on his website, irvingburgie.com.