The song was simple enough, opening with a distant, a cappella rumble from singer Harry Belafonte. But with its swinging percussion, yearning refrain about a dockworker finishing his night shift, and colorful lyrics about a “beautiful bunch o’ ripe banana” and “deadly black tarantula,” the 1956 single “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” helped launch a calypso craze around the world.
Adapted from a traditional Jamaican call-and-response tune, the song was in large part the creation of Irving Burgie, a half-Barbadian, New York-born songwriter who wrote or co-wrote more than 30 songs for Belafonte, drawing on Caribbean folk music for hits including “Jamaica Farewell” and “Island in the Sun.”
Burgie, who also sang under the stage name Lord Burgess, penned a well-received off-Broadway musical and wrote the lyrics to Barbados’ national anthem, was 95 when he died Nov. 29, after collapsing at a cousin’s home in Brooklyn, N.Y. The cause was complications of a heart ailment, said his son Andrew Burgie.
Although he was surrounded by Caribbean folk music as a boy, Burgie began his music career singing German lieder and French and Italian arias. The American folk musical revival of the 1940s and ’50s led him to reconnect with his roots, and he went on to adapt countless Caribbean songs, from Trinidadian calypso to Jamaican mento. By the time he connected with Belafonte, he was being hailed as “the black Alan Lomax — a walking library of songs from the islands,” by novelist and screenwriter William Attaway.
The trio united for Belafonte’s all-Caribbean record “Calypso,” which spent 31 weeks atop the Billboard charts, outsold two Elvis Presley albums and is generally considered the first million-selling record by a single artist in the United States. Eight of the album’s 11 songs were credited to Burgie, including “Jamaican Farewell,” which was later covered by Chuck Berry, Jimmy Buffett and Sam Cooke.
But it was the album’s opener, “Day-O,” that became an international sensation. The single reached No. 5 on the U.S. charts and spawned five Top 40 versions of the track by other artists within the next year, according to a 2017 account by New Yorker journalist Amanda Petrusich, who traced the song’s universal appeal.
“ ‘Come Mr. Tally Man, tally me banana,’ Belafonte implores. ‘Daylight come and me wan’ go home,’ his chorus chants. It is an infinitely applicable refrain,” she wrote, “no matter what your metaphorical banana might be, or which cocktail seizes your imagination come quitting time. ‘Me wan’ go home’ is perhaps as universal a plea for freedom as we’ve got.”
An earlier rendition of “Day-O” was recorded by Trinidadian singer Edric Connor, under the name “Day Dah Light,” and Burgie said he wrote his version in 1954, inspired by chants of Jamaican dockworkers loading bananas. He, Belafonte and Attaway polished the song in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan and all three men were listed as songwriters, with Burgie claiming primary credit in interviews.
“None of us had any idea, when we recorded it, that it would be spun off as a single, much less rocket up the charts,” Belafonte wrote in a memoir, “My Song.” “The fact was that after I had pushed RCA into using only Caribbean songs, we found ourselves one or two songs short, so we threw in ‘Day-O’ as filler.”
The song was later sampled by singer Jason Derulo and rapper Lil Wayne, and covered by legions of artists — in genres as varied as funk (George Clinton), go-go (Chuck Brown), rockabilly (Hasil Adkins) and dancehall (Shaggy). Astronauts on space shuttle Atlantis woke up to “Day-O” in space, and dinner-party guests in the 1988 movie “Beetlejuice” were forced, by ghosts, to join hands and dance along.
Burgie, meanwhile, thrived off royalties, as artists including the Kingston Trio recorded versions of his songs. He told NPR earlier this year that he “made about $20 million over 50 years,” although in other interviews he said that he had unwittingly signed over many of his publishing rights, which reverted to his name after 28 years.
“I took a trip around the world in 1958, and [‘Day-O’] was No. 1 everywhere,” he told Billboard magazine in 1997. “I heard it in Japan, Africa, Europe, Scandinavia. I guess it sort of hit a responsive chord in people [with the lyric] ‘Daylight come and [me wan’] go home.’ For people who had been working all day, it became sort of an office cry.”
Irving Louis Burgie was born in Brooklyn on July 28, 1924. His father was a day laborer at a slaughterhouse, his mother a seamstress and domestic worker. “I think I was in the third grade when I found out that Brooklyn was not in the West Indies,” he later told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, recalling his upbringing in a neighborhood of immigrants.
Burgie played in a local drum-and-bugle corps but became seriously interested in music only during World War II, when he served in the China-Burma-India theater with an all-black Army engineering unit, and began singing during chapel services.
He later studied on the GI Bill at the Juilliard music conservatory in Manhattan, the University of Arizona and the University of Southern California, without receiving a degree.
Burgie worked with Belafonte into the early 1960s, partnering with him on the albums “Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean” (1957) and “Jump Up Calypso” (1961). His most popular tracks included “Island in the Sun,” which Burgie wrote for the 1957 movie of the same name, an ensemble drama that featured Belafonte and Joan Fontaine.
In 1963, Burgie made his off-Broadway theatrical debut with “Ballad for Bimshire,” which took its name from a nickname for Barbados and ran for 74 performances. Produced by Ossie Davis, who also starred as an obnoxious tax collector, the musical featured music and lyrics by Burgie, and a book he co-wrote with black dramatist Loften Mitchell.
“Mr. Burgie’s songs almost cover the gamut — they are sweet, nostalgic, torch, comic and ebullient,” wrote New York Times reviewer Howard Taubman. “His lyrics vary in quality from indifferent to joyously apt, but he rarely is shy of an engaging melody and he can unleash rhythms that provide almost as much thrust to the production numbers as a booster rocket on a launching pad.”
Over the decades, Burgie performed only occasionally, but to warm reviews, with Times reviewer John Wilson writing in 1984 that he sang “with phrasing, shading and subtleties of accent” that paralleled Belafonte’s style, but “with less sense of affectation.” In 1996, he recorded his first full-length solo album, “Island in the Sun: The Songs of Irving Burgie,” featuring his own version of “Day-O.”
Burgie also served with civil rights organizations in Queens and created a Caribbean music program that was used in New York public schools. In 2007, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
His wife of nearly 50 years, Page Turner, died in 2003, and his second wife, Vivia Heron, died in 2007. Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Irving Burgie Jr. of Queens and Andrew Burgie of Brooklyn; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.
In terms of emotional power, Burgie’s most enduring song was perhaps the one he wrote by chance, after being asked to provide the lyrics to Barbados’s national anthem while traveling through the former British colony on vacation. Adopted in 1966, the anthem featured a chorus with the words: “We write our names on history’s page / With expectations great / Strict guardians of our heritage / Firm craftsmen of our fate.”
On Saturday, Barbados celebrated its Independence Day, with Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley calling for a moment of silence in Burgie’s honor.