[ Irving Burgie Receives An Honorary Doctorate
From St. John's University, 2008]
I've never wasted very much time pondering the imponderables, like what my favorite food might be, or favorite campsite, or favorite country to visit, or favorite graduation class among my three and a half decades of graduating classes. Nonetheless, without conscious deliberation, sometimes genuine favorites actually emerge from the tangled reaches of my unconscious mind. "Chilly Winds" is my favorite song (John Stewart's 1973 Cannons In The Rain version, not College Concert - sorry!). Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite movie. W.H. Auden is my favorite poet. And my favorite Kingston Trio album is Here We Go Again. Really, no other record comes close for me, though there's much to be said for the first album and New Frontier and Goin' Places and even Stay Awhile. But Here We Go Again just has so much right about it - perfect, even - that it has emerged over the decades for me (nearly fifty years now and even with some minor flaws) as the quintessential representation of what was best about The Kingston Trio.
Consider. Start with the cover. I think only New Frontier captures the excitement and the energy and the personalities of the Trio as well as does this shot from Capitol Records Studio B. Released in October of 1959, it is about to become the KT's fourth consecutive "real" album (discounting Stereo Concert here) to go gold and to #1 on the Billboard charts. A year after "Tom Dooley" rocketed the Trio to prominence, the erstwhile Northern California nightclub troupe had become the premier act in American show business, playing to sold out audiences in large concert venues coast to coast - and this record above all others shows why, with its highly original mix of traditional and re-written folk songs, sea chanteys, foreign language/Polynesian tunes, spirituals, nonsense songs - and for my money the three best solos recorded by the individual singers in the group's long and storied history.
Now I know that "Scotch and Soda" is the trademark Bob Shane solo - but I don't think it's half as good a song as Stan Wilson's "A Rolling Stone" - and the jaunty, ebullient, devil-may-care lyric is far better at expressing Shane's onstage persona than the darker, boozier S&S. I don't think that Dave Guard ever sounded better than he did on "San Miguel," and I think it's structurally the best of the Jane Bowers' tunes that the KT recorded.
Most of all, "The Wanderer" is I believe the song that demonstrates best just what an absolutely sublime vocalist Nick Reynolds (center on the album cover above) was. It is, I believe, the only true and complete vocal solo that Nick recorded with the Trio (even "Mountains of Mourne" has some "ooos" by Shane and Guard in the background). Nick's range on the number, that upper-register wail I noted two weeks ago on The Colorado Trail, the bluesy edge, the emotion - this is one great vocal performance.
And Nick was working with some equally impressive material by the little-known and vastly underrated songwriting genius, Irving Burgie. Burgie, born in Brooklyn in 1924 of Barbadian parents, performed under the calypso name of "Lord Burgess," which accounts for the confusion of his actual name. After seeing combat duty with an all-black battalion in Burma during WWII, Burgie availed himself of the GI Bill to study his great love, music - at (get this!), the Julliard School, the University of Arizona, and the University of Southern California. In the early 50s, Burgie played as a solo calypso singer at great clubs like The Blue Angel in Chicago and The Village Vanguard in New York, where Burgie met a man whose towering talents as a singer and actor were matched only by his drive and ambition - Harry Belafonte.
Belafonte was so taken by Burgie's songwriting talents (which, much like Dave Guard's and the early Trio's consisted often of re-imagining traditional songs into something original) that he included eight of Burgie's copyrighted numbers (out of eleven songs total) on his landmark 1956 classic album Calypso - which spent 32 weeks at #1 and is the first recording in history to sell a certified one million copies. Harry B eventually recorded 26 more Burgie numbers, including "Jamaica Farewell" (a real Burgie original and HB's signature song) and "Island In The Sun" (theme from the movie), all of which made the prudent Burgie wealthy for life.
The Kingstons were as Time's Richard Corliss suggested outstanding song sleuths and recorded four Burgie composition/arrangements - "Bay of Mexico," "The Seine," "El Matador" - and "The Wanderer," which Burgie had re-worked somewhat from a very familiar American traditional railroad blues number, "900 Miles." Why it took 52 years for Burgie to be recognized with membership in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and with a well-received autobiography is a mystery.
But now to the man's work. First a small tribute video I put together with images of NR over this great solo:
For the traditional "900 Miles" number, who better to hear than Woody Guthrie? The YT video doesn't say who, but there are maybe two other musicians playing with Woody here, one of whom may well be Cisco Houston and/or Leadbelly:
And now for something completely different - Peter Yarrow of PP&M's daughter Bethany, a powerful and original singer in her own mode (and a chip off of dad's political block right down to the attitude) with her partner, jazz/folk/blues cellist Rufus Cappadocia - you have to see this one:
Our own Mr. Roadie knew and worked with 12 string guitar legend Dick Rosmini, who played with and influenced the other great 12 string folk players, Bob Gibson and Erik Darling. Rosmini's work here shows why only Leadbelly himself had as much impact with the instrument as Rosmini had:
A fine pop/jazz reading from Alan Arkin, actor (The Russians Are Coming!) and singer with Weaver Lee hays in The Babyitters and all-around great performer:
Finally, a Japanese language version from The Ole Country Boys:
I can't find any other recorded versions of Irving Burgie's "The Wanderer" - but given the awesome sales power of the 1959-60 KT - Here We Go Again sold 900,000 copies - I'll bet Burgie was just fine with the results (figure $50-90,000 in 1960 dollars). Irving Burgie still lives in Queens - and maybe someone else might choose to recognize and honor this remarkable artist while he is still with us.