For most of the 40 years of his professional career, Irving Burgie, aka Lord Burgess, has been a relatively well-kept secret in the world of calypso music, at least as a performer. A prolific and vastly successful songwriter, responsible for such classics as "Day-O," "Island in the Sun," and "Jamaica Farewell," he composed eight of the 11 songs on Harry Belafonte's groundbreaking 1956 RCA album Calypso, as well as hits by the Kingston Trio and other groups. Yet as a performer, Burgie has achieved only sporadic fame, and didn't record his first complete album until 1996.
Irving Burgie was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1924. His mother came from Barbados in the British West Indies, while his father was from Virginia. Growing up, he heard a great deal of Caribbean folk songs and calypso music in his home, and he absorbed all of it. Many of the originals that he later wrote were inspired by the traditional songs he heard -- "Day-O" was based on the chants he heard from Jamaican dockworkers who were unloading bananas, while "Yellow Bird" was adapted from the chorus of a Haitian folk song he had heard. He reached draft age during World War II and served in China, Burma, and India for almost three years, and he began singing in chapel in the jungle during the war.
His fellow soldiers told him he could make a career in music, and after his return to civilian life, he used the benefits of the G.I. Bill to study singing at the Juilliard School of Music. Burgie later attended the University of Arizona and the University of Southern California. Burgie originally embarked on a career built on German lieder and and French and Italian opera arias. At the time, however, the folk music revival was beginning to gather speed, and he began looking into his own roots. He started writing songs based on those he had heard during his childhood, from the islands. Burgie began a career playing and singing in various clubs under the name Lord Burgess.
There had been an audience for calypso music in the United States at least since the beginning of the 1940s, when a young Trinidad-born singer named Sir Lancelot had toured the country and begun making records and appearing in films. By the early and mid-'50s, however, the cult audience for calypso had grown and merged with the larger, faster-growing folk audience. Burgie played his first show at the Village Vanguard in 1954, where he was heard by a writer for Harry Belafonte's television show.
Belafonte, himself New York-born, recorded "Day-O" and had a huge hit with it. The accompanying album, Calypso, with eight Burgie songs on it, was the first LP to sell more than a million copies, and by the time the smoke cleared, Belafonte was so closely associated with Burgie's songs that most people assumed he had written them. The composer decided to keep a low profile while "Day-O," in Belafonte's version, topped the charts in country after country, a pleasant discovery that Burgie made while taking his family on a round-the-world tour on the royalties just from the American success of "Day-O." Burgie also set up his own publishing company and collected money on his songs on that end as well.
He never returned to performing full-time, content to let Belafonte reap the benefits of performances that Burgie himself was personally pleased with. "Day-O" became the song that defined calypso and never ceased being played or recorded, much as Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" or Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" defined the early-'60s folk boom. The Kingston Trio, then at the height of their fame, recorded "The Seine," "El Matador," and "Wish You Were Here." And Burgie's "Yellow Bird," apart from its becoming a hit as an official recording, was licensed for use in a series of airline commercials during the late '60s that put it constantly on the airwaves on both radio and television.
Despite periodic performances during the 1960s and a series of well-publicized shows in New York in the early '80s at venues such as Folk City, he generally stood in Belafonte's shadow for decades, preferring to concentrate on writing songs. These, in addition to the 35 recorded by Belafonte, include the words to Barbados' national anthem and the songs for a musical production, Ballad for Bimshire, which had a two-month run in 1963. Burgie began reworking it for a revival 33 years later. Finally, in 1996, Burgie released his first official album, a ten-song collection entitled Island in the Sun: The Best of Irving Burgie, which included many of his best-known songs, including "Day-O," "Jamaica Farewell," the title track, and "Yellow Bird." The Father of Modern Calypso followed in 2003.