Irving Burgie, A Writer Who Didn’t Get Screwed By the Music Biz. Day-O!
When most of the biggest stars in pop music gathered one night in 1986 to record the charity song “We Are the World,” 59-year-old Harry Belafonte was not the hottest. He was better than that. He was the godfather, because he had pulled a whole African relief campaign together.
When Belafonte entered the recording studio, all the others broke into a spontaneous chorus of “Day-O! Day-O!” — a tribute to Belafonte’s signature song, the 1956 hit better known as “The Banana Boat Song.”
It was a wonderful moment, because how many chances did we ever get to hear Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Cyndi Lauper harmonize on anything?
Belafonte deserved it, too, because before and since he has spent his life singing delightful music and working for the right things.
In the case of “Day-O,” there’s just one important addendum, which is that the song was mostly written by Belafonte’s friend Irving Burgie, who died Saturday at the age of 94.
Burgie also wrote “Jamaica Farewell,” Belafonte’s other biggest hit, as well as “Island in the Sun” and one of the loveliest modern Christmas songs, “Mary’s Boy Child.”
All that should be noted because songwriters rarely get their proper credit in these matters.
In the notes on the back of Belafonte’s landmark Calypso and Belafonte albums, which came out in the mid-1950s and were among the first albums to sell a million copies, Burgie is never mentioned, though he wrote most of the songs.
To be fair, neither is William Attaway, another friend who also contributed to the songwriting. That’s interesting in part because Attaway wrote the liner notes.
But if this sounds like the long preamble to painting Irving Burgie as another songwriter who got finessed out of royalties and credit, it’s not.
Burgie, who performed for a time himself as Lord Burgess, was that rare writer who apparently got all his money. Harry Belafonte’s success gave Irving Burgie a very comfortable life.
Burgie told Jon Kalish of NPR that he made some $20 million from his songs, enabling him to spend most of his life pursuing his various passions, which ranged from civil rights to a Harlem magazine and a book of Caribbean songs for children.
Speaking of children, he mentioned to Kalish that he put two of his own through Yale, which isn’t a bad thing to be able to say when you grew up poor in Brooklyn during the Depression.
While Burgie worked for civil rights and often noted that “The Banana Boat Song” was about the hard life of a dockworker, he acknowledged without guilt that once the royalties from those Belafonte records started coming in, his own hard life ended.
Presumably that doesn’t mean everything in his life was perfect. But so many artists hit some frustrating or infuriating roadblock in dealing with the music industry that it’s nice once in a while to find someone for whom things seemed to generally work out.
Nor was Burgie only notable as a financial success story. He also left us those indelible songs and he is widely credited, with reason, for helping introduce calypso rhythms into American popular music in the 1950s.
That matters beyond the fine music itself because alongside ska, reggae, mambo and other imported beats, calypso helped pave a few paths toward the embrace of our multicultural heritage. Music has that power.
We’re still a ways from full national acceptance of that heritage, of course. But no one who knows “Day-O” or “Jamaica Farewell” can unhear it, or would want to, and on some subliminal level, that’s a start.
If there’s a next life, let’s hope an all-star chorus was waiting to greet Irving Burgie.
Daylight come / And me wan’ go home.