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Day-O! - A chat with a master Caribbean writer

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2011 | 8:00 AM
Irving Burgie - Contributed
Harry Belafonte - File
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Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer

Irving Burgie has wasted little time in his 87 years. Some of his most memorable moments were spent writing pop standards such as Day-O, Jamaica Farewell, Island In The Sun and the Christmas carol, Mary's Boy Child.

Burgie, who was born in Brooklyn, New York to an African-American father and Barbadian mother, is currently updating his autobiography which he hopes will be complete this year for a 2012 release.

Day-O!!! The Autobiography of Irving Burgie, was first released in 2007, but recognition for the sprightly octogenarian's work has come so fast and furious since then, he felt a few nips and tucks were appropriate.

"Being honoured is never a bad thing. It feels great that people still admire what I have done," Burgie told Arts and Education last week.

Burgie was getting ready to leave for Barbados, where he visits three times annually, "just to chill out". His mother, Viola Callender, was originally from Watts Village in St George's parish but immigrated to New York City in the early 20th century.

Burgie has been a regular visitor to Barbados since the 1950s. In 1966, when the country was granted independence from Britain, the government commissioned him to write its national anthem.

It was after serving in the United States Army during World War II that Burgie got into music professionally. He attended the prestigious Julliard School of Music, and majored in voice at the University of Arizona and University of Southern California.

Interest in Caribbean culture

He formed a group, Lord Burgess and the Serenaders which performed on the US east coast. While with the Serenaders in the early 1950s, he met a buxom Jamaican in New York who further sparked his interest in Caribbean culture.

"I met Louise Bennett when we were working the Vanguard in New York and we became friends. I really got to know all the folk songs through her," Burgie recalled.

Around the same time Burgie met Bennett, he bumped into Harry Belafonte, another African-American with strong Caribbean roots. It was not until 1955 that the two collaborated on an album that would take Caribbean music out of West Indian clubs and onto the US national charts.

"I met him (Belafonte) again through Bill Hathaway who was his writer. At the time, he was a jazz singer but when he heard my songs he said, 'Man, we've got to do something together'," said Burgie.

That 'something' turned out to be Calypso which went on to sell more than one million copies, the first album to pass that mark. It made Belafonte - who was already famous in the US through his roles in the film Carmen Jones - a superstar.

The album's remarkable success also changed Burgie's life.

"I made so much money from royalties I took my family on a world tour the next year," he laughed.

During his globetrotting, Burgie visited the Caribbean for the first time. He remembers coming to Jamaica and staying at the Myrtle Bank Hotel in Kingston and with Louise Bennett and her family at their Gordon Town home in the hills of St Andrew.

His last visit to Jamaica was a three-month stay in 1984, when he worked with the National Dance Theatre Company which used his song, Jamaica Calling, as part of its season.

Burgie's enduring songs have been covered by a diverse list of artistes including South African singer Miriam Makeba, jazz chanteuse Nina Simone and pop singer Carly Simon. Though his work has earned him millions of dollars in royalties, Burgie lives a quiet life in Queens, New York, where he is revered by the arts community.

In 2007, he was inducted into the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Celebrity Path, alongside other famous Brooklyn-ites such as songwriter George Gershwin and actor Jackie Gleason.