Irving Burgie obituary

Virtually overnight, a 1956 album entitled Calypso made the American singer Harry Belafonte into one of the biggest names of 20th century popular music. A collection of 11 songs that projected a folksy, romantic image of the Caribbean, it was the first record by a solo artist to sell a million copies, spending 31 weeks at the top of the album charts.

Yet the man who wrote eight of those successful compositions, Belafonte’s fellow American Irving Burgie, remained largely unheralded outside songwriting circles.

Burgie, who has died aged 95, had the great knack of reworking traditional West Indian folk songs in a way that retained their bittersweet inner core while coating them with an accessible, easy listening shell that was perfect for Belafonte’s precise, heartfelt delivery.

Among them was the now immortal Banana Boat Song (also known as Day-O), an adaptation of a Jamaican work tune in which a weary docker yearns for the end of a back-breaking night shift with the lines: “Come, mister tally man, tally me banana/ Daylight come and me wan’ go home”.

The song had been around for decades in one colloquial form or another, but it was Burgie’s imaginative and supremely polished version (achieved with some help from the writer William Attaway) that brought it to widespread attention, both on Belafonte’s album and as a top ten single in the UK and US in 1957.

It became one of Belafonte’s signature tunes, but more than that has remained in the public consciousness ever since, continuing its life through countless cover versions, in films and on television shows, in cabaret routines and at sporting events, and in bar-room singsongs across the world.

Almost equally as recognisable to the ear, though rather less familiar by title, is Burgie’s Jamaica Farewell, created for the same album from an old folk tune and overlaid with lyrics in which a sailor laments his departure from the Jamaican capital, Kingston, where he has left behind a lover.

If both songs have come to represent, in many people’s hearing, the essence of Caribbean music, then so too has a third Burgie number, Island in the Sun, which he wrote jointly with Belafonte for the 1957 film of the same name. That a trio of such quintessentially West Indian compositions, all hugely and enduringly popular, could have emerged from the same hand is quite remarkable.

Born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn in New York, Irving was the son of Louis Burgie, an African-American slaughterhouse labourer from Virginia, and his wife, Viola (nee Callender), a seamstress who had moved from Barbados to the US in the early 1900s. While at Automotive high school in Brooklyn, he played in a local drum and bugle corps, but it was not until his early 20s that he began to develop a real interest in music. Joining the US army in 1943, he fought in Burma during the second world war and began to play the saxophone, sing in the army choir and learn the church organ.

In peacetime, using money made available by the GI bill, he signed up to study at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and used the same source of funding to undertake voice studies at the University of Arizona and then the University of Southern California.

Having become friends with the Jamaican writer and folklorist Louise Bennett-Coverley, who added greatly to the store of traditional Caribbean folk songs he had learned in his childhood, from 1953 Burgie began performing as a singer and guitarist under the name Lord Burgess, mainly in folk clubs and often with a backing band called the Serenaders.

By 1955, however, he had joined up with his fellow New Yorker Belafonte, who had been advised by Attaway, a mutual friend, to listen to Burgie’s latest compositions. Up to that point much of Belafonte’s material had been oriented towards the American folk tradition, but when he heard Burgie’s Caribbean-focused work he decided on a shift in direction. The songs formed the backbone of Calypso, which became Belafonte’s landmark album and won him a massive worldwide following.

Despite the title of the record, most of its offerings were in fact based around the traditional mento music of Jamaica rather than the calypso of Trinidad. Nonetheless, the popularity of its contents further stoked a post-war “calypso boom” that had its origins in the US and UK with the release in 1945 of Rum and Coca Cola by the Andrews Sisters.

The music historian Cary Ginell judged that aside from greatly boosting the popularity of Caribbean music, Burgie’s songs had an “inestimable influence” on folk artists of all backgrounds, to the extent that “for a decade afterwards, just about every folk singer or folk group featured in their repertoire at least one song that was of West Indian origin or one that had a calypso beat”.

Even though Belafonte, keen to avoid typecasting, was quite sparing thereafter with his use of Caribbean material, the bulk of Burgie’s earnings – around $20m – came from royalties on the more than 30 compositions he wrote for his friend across three bestselling albums.

When not writing for Belafonte he took the opportunity to branch off into other projects, creating the lyrics and music for a 1963 off-Broadway musical called Ballad for Bimshire, and in 1966 taking up a commission to pen the words to the national anthem of Barbados. He used his money to indulge a love of travel and to quietly support civil rights causes and community projects in New York, where he lived all his life.

Although for the most part Burgie was content to concentrate on songwriting, in 1996 he did eventually release a solo album, Island in the Sun, which he followed up with another, The Father of Modern Calypso, in 2003.

In 2007 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the same year he brought out his autobiography, Day-O!!! He was also author of The West Indian Song Book (1972) and Caribbean Carnival: Songs of the West Indies (1993).

In 1956, Burgie married his first wife, Page Turner; she died in 2003, and his second wife, Vivia Heron, died in 2007. He is survived by two sons, Andrew and Irving Jr, a grandchild and a great-grandchild.

• Irving Louis Burgie, songwriter, born 28 July 1924; died 29 November 2019