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Songwriter Irving Burgie is dead

By Howard Campbell
Observer senior writer

Monday, December 02, 2019

Songwriter Irving Burgie died in his native New York on November 29, at age 95. Though not an household name in the Caribbean, he wrote a number of standards that identified with the region, including Day-O, Jamaica Farewell and Island in The Sun.

Various news reports quoted his son, Andrew, giving the cause of death as heart failure.

Maxine Hamilton-Alexander, a Jamaican with strong ties in the New York/West Indian cultural circles, knew Burgie for 15 years. She described him as “an erudite man. His generosity of spirit exceeded most people I have met.”

Hamilton-Alexander was a board member of the Caribbean Cultural Theater in 2010 when that organisation presented Burgie with its Legacy Award in New York.

Born in Brooklyn, New York to an African-American father and Barbadian mother, Burgie told this writer in a 2011 interview that he learned about Caribbean culture from his mother who moved to the United States in the early 20th century.

After serving in the US Army in World War II, he attended and graduated from The Julliard School. In the early 1950s, while leading the Lord Burgess and the Serenaders band, he met Jamaican folklorist Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett and they became quick friends.

“I really got to know all the folk songs through her,” said Burgie in that 2011 interview.

It was around that time Burgie also met Harry Belafonte, another American with Caribbean roots, through a mutual friend. They eventually collaborated on Belafonte's Calypso album, released in 1956. It contained Day-O, Jamaica Farewell and Come Back Liza, all co-written by Burgie.

Calypso is the first album to sell over one million copies.

Burgie also wrote In Plenty and In Time of Need, the Barbados national anthem.

Thanks to royalties from Calypso, Burgie travelled the world. He visited the Caribbean for the first time in the late 1950s, checking in with Miss Lou at her Gordon Town home, and his mother's homeland which he would visit three times a year.

Burgie spent an extended period in Jamaica in 1984, working with the National Dance Theatre Company, which used his song Jamaica Calling for their season.

Irving Burgie is survived by two sons, grandchildren and great grandchildren.