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Songwriter, 93, turns USC Thornton event into a calypso party

The composer behind some of legendary Harry Belafonte’s biggest hits offers advice to Trojans

Irving Burgie
Songwriter Irving Burgie spoke to students at the USC Thornton School of Music. (Photo/Daniel Anderson)

You may not know his name, but you know his songs. Irving Burgie, 93, the man behind Harry Belafonte’s most beloved songs, including “The Banana Boat Song (Day O)” and “Jamaica Farewell,” visited the University Park Campus.

As part of an ongoing partnership with the Popular Music Forum at the USC Thornton School of Music and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, the man perhaps better known as Lord Burgess spoke about his career with Chris Sampson, vice dean of the school’s Contemporary Music Division.

Outlining the sequence of events that led to his rise as an accomplished songwriter, Burgie recalled his experience in the U.S. Army during World War II.

“I was fully enlisted in the Army at the age of 18, and when I came out, I was still looking up at the world wondering what my next move would be,” he said. “It turned out that Uncle Sam came to my rescue with the GI Bill of Rights, which afforded a poor boy growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn a college education.”

Burgie took advantage of that opportunity during a “turning point in [his] life,” attending the Julliard School of Music for two years as well as the University of Arizona and USC.

Shortly after earning a degree in music, Burgie said that he “crossed paths with Harry Belafonte somewhere along the way” — a partnership that would change the course of their lives.

Selling millions of records during his five-year, three-album stint with Belafonte, Burgie wrote eight of the 11 songs on Calypso, the first album of any kind to sell 1 million copies.

“I was sitting on top of the world,” he said. “Songs like ‘Jamaica Farewell’ and ‘Banana Boat’ went to number one all across the world and really got me off to a flying start. In fact, I bet the audience might even know a couple lines.”

Burgie proceeded to lead spirited renditions of both classic sing-a-longs, temporarily turning the gathering into a calypso party.

Songwriting success

Offering a firsthand account of his successes as a songwriter as well as tricks of the trade, Burgie spoke to USC Thornton’s Songwriting majors in attendance.

“Imagery, to me, is the most important part of songwriting,” he said. “The success of your writing depends on how many images you can conjure up within those 32 bars. You can write almost anything if you put your mind to it, and everyone has their own way of painting that picture.”

Burgie also talked about the advantages of being a professional songwriter, declaring that “if you can write songs that are fairly good, you can have some income coming your way.”

Students onstage singing with Irving Burgie

Popular Music students Jej Millanes, Christine Meisenhelter and Daniel Davila perform a tribute to songwriter Irving Burgie. (Photo/MJ Orpiano)

But even after 93 years of learning, he has yet to figure it all out.

“I’ve been looking for a long time, but even I still haven’t really gotten it together. I’m not sure that I ever will,” Burgie said. “The key to life is the privilege that is the university. College is so important, especially in today’s world. Of all the things I’ve done and all the things I’ve enjoyed, the best move I ever made was my four years in college.”

The class finished with students and faculty member Aaron Serfaty performing “Jamaica Farewell,” with Burgie singing along to every word.

After a week of events in which Burgie sat in on classes and met with students as part of more formal songwriting workshops, he complimented the Trojans.

“I’m quite pleased with what I’ve seen,” he said. “Keep up the good work.”

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