By Clevil James
Irving Burgie played a major role in the popularization of calypso music in the 1950s, when he wrote 8 of the 11 songs on Harry Belafonte’s 1956 album called Calypso; the first album to sell one million copies, which included the Burgie’s interpretation of the Jamaican banana boat folk song Day-O.
Irving Burgie was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 28, 1924. His father was an American from Virginia and his mother was born in Barbados. He joined the US Army during World War II, at which time he started playing the guitar and singing. He was exposed to calypso music after visiting Barbados and other islands directly as a result of his mother’s Bajan heritage.
The American born and Julliard School educated Burgie was, in the 1950s, playing his guitar and singing calypsos at various locations in New York, including the Village Vanguard under the sobriquet of Lord Burgess. In 1954 Lord Burgess released his milestone “Lord Burgess, Calypso Serenaders” album also known as “Folk Songs of Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad”. Irving’s songs were performed in over 20 languages.
Among his numerous accomplishments, Burgie wrote the song Jamaica Farewell, the lyrics to the Barbados National Anthem and the chorus of the popular Christmas song “Mary’s Boy Child”. He said he was locked in a room and told to write the lyrics to the Christmas song. Eventually only his chorus was used in recording Mary’s Boy Child.
In 1977 Burgie wrote the book entitled “The Caribbean Songbook”, which included songs of Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas. The songs from these countries were compiled and arranged by Burgie and published by Caribe Music Corporation.
In 1997 Irving Burgie was inducted into the Sunshine Awards Hall of Fame for his contribution to calypso music. Sunshine Awards founder and chairman, Gil Figaro, recalled that the president and CEO at that time of Irving publishing company, Cherry Lane Music, Peter Primont, said Irving was totally deserving of a Sunshine Award as he is one the most successful composers of all time. By 1997 his songs had sold over one hundred million records throughout the world. On April 15 of the same year he was featured in the New York Times.
In 2006 he received another Sunshine Award for his contribution to the performing arts. It was the same year The Awards paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of Day-O.
In 1989, Burgie received an honorary doctorate from The University of The West Indies (UWI).
In January of 2007, Irving was honoured by UWI at a gala event in New York, when he was recognized as one of the greatest song writers of all times. Others honoured at that event were Ossie Davis, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier, Colin Powell and Butch Stewart. In the same year, Burgie was inducted into song Writers Hall of Fame at their 37th annual award dinner.
He was a main feature in the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Playback publication in the March-April 1997 issue.
Burgie also published “Island In The Sun” in which appeared the musical score for the songs Day-O, River Coming Down, Island In The Sun, Jamaica Farewell, Yellow Bird, Land of The Sea and Sun, I Do Adore Her, Angelina, Gamblin and Kingston Market.
His music was featured in the 1957 movie of the same name, which was filmed in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Grenada. The movie, Island In The Sun, spotlighted actress Dorothy Dandridge among other leading stars of that era.
Irving will be remembered as a Titan of Calypso Music, a significant personality in the spreading of this music to the rest of the world. Right now, he must be singing calypso in heaven with Maya Angelou, who stayed at his home while she was singing calypso in the 1950s. Of course he deserves to be on that heavenly stage with all the great ones that have passed: King Radio, Growling Tiger, Spoiler, Lord Melody, Mighty Shadow, just to name a few.