Roland Hayes Biography

Roland Hayes (1887-1977)

by Randye Jones


Tenor Roland Hayes

Tenor and composer Roland Hayes was born in Curryville, Georgia, on June 3, 1887. His parents, William and Fanny Hayes, were ex-slaves who worked as tenant farmers to raise their seven children. When William Hayes died from a work-related injury in 1898, Fanny–who Roland called Angel Mo’–moved her family to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Because he had to help support his family, young Hayes was only able to complete the fifth grade. He worked in an iron foundry, where he was badly injured when a conveyor belt pulled him into the machinery.


Roland Hayes as a child

His mother made certain that he attended church regularly. Hayes sang in the church choir and with a group he formed called the Silver-Toned Quartet. He studied voice with local choral director Arthur Calhoun. During this time, the young man decided that he wanted to make singing a career:

“I happened upon a new method for making iron sash-weights,” he said, “and that got me a little raise in pay and a little free time. At that time I had never heard any real music, although I had had some lessons in rhetoric from a backwoods teacher in Georgia. But one day a pianist came to our church in Chattanooga, and I, as a choir member, was asked to sing a solo with him. The pianist liked my voice, and he took me in hand and introduced me to phonograph records by Caruso. That opened the heavens for me. The beauty of what could be done with the voice just overwhelmed me.”1

Although Angel Mo’ had been the one who introduced spirituals to Hayes, she was vehemently opposed to him wasting the money to study voice privately. Instead, she wanted her son to become a minister. Despite her opposition, Hayes could not ignore the siren call. In addition to getting vocal coaching, he undertook academic studies to catch up for the lost years of schooling.

With the help of supporters, Hayes raised $50.00 and left home with the plan of attending Oberlin. However, he ran out of money and ended up as a student in Fisk University’s preparatory program in 1905. In addition to his music courses, he sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and he supported himself as a waiter. Just before he was to graduate, he was informed by the teacher who had sponsored his studies that he was going to be expelled from school. Years later, the school presented Hayes with an honorary doctoral music degree–one of eight he received over his career.

Portrait of tenor Roland Hayes, H.T. Burleigh and Jennie A. Robinson at Fisk University.

Portrait of tenor Roland Hayes, H.T. Burleigh and Jennie A. Robinson at Fisk University. Handwritten on front: “Fisk Uni., 1916, Nashville, Tenn., U.S.A., on occasion of reading the Elijah. Left to right: 1. H.T. Burleigh, 2. Miss Jennie A. Robinson (my instructor [undecipherable] at Fisk Uni.), 3. Roland Hayes.”

Hayes joined the Jubilee Singers when they toured in 1911. Along with Singers director John Wesley Work, II, and two other members of choir, he recorded nine spirituals for the Edison Phonograph Company. When the Singers returned to Nashville, Hayes decided to relocate to Boston. He believed that he had a better chance of becoming a professional musician in the north than in the south.

Album label for Roland Hayes recording of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” produced by Columbia Graphophone, 1917

Over the next several years, he continued his vocal studies and engaged Columbia Records’ personal recording service to produce recordings that he sold to raise funds. He toured with two other musicians–William Lawrence and William Richardson–who called themselves the Hayes Trio. Hayes found some success in his endeavors, including sales from his recordings; however, he was unable to get professional management:

I remember that one day–I think it was in 1920–I met William Brennan, who was the manager of the Boston Symphony. I told him about my hopes, and he told me that no one of my race would ever be accepted in music. I thanked him. I wasn’t angry at what he said, but I knew that I still hadn’t done enough.2

Years later, Hayes commented in his biography that:

I can say truly that never in my whole life have I wished I were a white man; but I confess that there were times, long ago, when it seemed difficult to be a Negro in a white world. In the South, I had been carefully taught my “place,” and I did not suppose that in the North my place would be, in the beginning, less restricted than at home; but I had somehow hoped that I would not so frequently be reminded of it.3


In April 1920, Hayes sailed for London, England, accompanied by Lawrence Brown, his pianist since 1918. Hayes found a new voice teacher and managers who helped him with bookings. For the first year, he performed regularly but found little financial success. Finally, he gave critically successful recitals at Wigmore Hall and the Royal Chapel of the Savoy. During the Royal Chapel, presented on Palm Sunday, Hayes featured an a cappella performance of the Negro Spiritual, “Were You There.” Authors Christopher Brooks and Robert Sims stated that Hayes’ performance of the Spiritual:

"Buste d'africain" by Renee Vautier

“Buste d’africain” by Renee Vautier

… was such phenomenon that a photo of it was later immortalized in a bust by Renée Vautier. It captured the tenor in a deep, almost transcendental pose with his head slightly raised and his eyes tightly closed as if he were internalizing the words that he had just sung about the crucified Christ dying on the cross…. Roland caused a few in his dispassionate British audience to drop their heads and shed tears. When he applied his well-developed messa di voce to the single word “Oh,” with a stunning portamento, the listeners were totally enthralled.4

The notoriety from the performance resulted in a “command” for Hayes and Brown to perform before British royalty and to engagements in cities across Europe. Most received him warmly, but Hayes had difficulties when he went to Berlin, Germany. He described the performance:

Well, I came out on stage, and there was a burst of hissing that lasted about ten minutes. I just stood there, and then I decided to change my program. As soon as it was quiet, I began with Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh.” I could see a change come over the hostile faces, and by the end of the song I knew I had won.5

The tenor returned to the United States in 1923. This time, under the management of the same William Brennan who had discouraged him three years earlier, he began touring the country. Southern venues would not engage him initially, but he soon sang to an integrated audience in Atlanta, as well as performing in other southern cities.


Roland Hayes

Hayes spent most of the next two decades giving vocal recitals and performing with orchestras throughout the United States and Europe. It is estimated that his income for 1924 approached $100,000 (according to the Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1957, the per capita income in 1920 was $740.00). He was given a hero’s welcome when he sang in the Soviet Union in 1928. Unlike bass-baritone Paul Robeson–who made his first visit to the country six years later, Hayes did not embrace socialism as an alternative to America’s political disenfranchisement of African Americans. He stopped touring in Europe in the 1930’s because the changes in the political climate were no longer friendly to a black man.

On January 31, 1931, Hayes performed at Constitution Hall, which had been dedicated less than two years earlier in Washington, DC. In a review of the recital the following day, the reviewer noted:

Hayes’ mellow tenor was at its best in the group of ballads of Beethoven, Handel and Mozart, with which he opened his program… nI (sic) the German and French group the tenor sang with impeccable diction and emotional force. The applause was prolonged after each number and he responded with many encores… The spirituals were sung with the deepest feeling of the evening. As sung by this master singer of his race, each spiritual is made a masterpiece of vocal art without losing any of the primitive appeal of the original compositions.6


Roland Hayes Recital Program, Boston Symphony Hall, Nov. 30, 1924

Curiously, there was no mention of an incident prior to the recital in which Hayes reportedly demanded that the hall audience be desegregated. The incident led hall management to institute a “white artists only” policy that played a major role in the much-publicized controversy between contralto Marian Anderson and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) eight years later.

Hayes’ typical program set a precedent for many African American singers by closing with a section of spiritual settings. James Weldon Johnson compared the tenor’s approach to singing spirituals to that of Robeson:

Through the genius and supreme artistry of Roland Hayes these songs undergo, we may say, a transfiguration. He takes them high above the earth and sheds over them shimmering silver of moonlight and flashes of the sun’s gold; and we are transported as he sings. By a seemingly opposite method, through sheer simplicity, without any conscious attempt at artistic effort and by devoted adherence to the primitive traditions, Paul Robeson achieves substantially the same effect. These two singers, apparently so different, have the chief essential in common; they both feel the Spirituals deeply. Mr. Hayes, notwithstanding all his artistry, sings these songs with tears on his cheeks. Both these singers pull at the heart strings and moisten the eyes of their listeners.7

Hayes married his cousin Helen Alzada Mann in September 1932. They had a daughter, Afrika Franzada.


Roland Hayes

From the 1940’s until his retirement in 1973, Hayes performed sparingly, including annual recitals at Carnegie Hall in New York and concerts at Fisk and other colleges. He purchased and settled on the Georgia farm where his parents had been tenant farmers in his youth . His biography, Angel Mo’ and Her Son, Roland Hayes, was published in 1942 and a collection of spirituals set for solo voice, My Favorite Spirituals: 30 Songs for Voice and Piano, in 1948.

Hayes supported the development of several African American singers who followed in his wake. Anderson, Robeson, sopranos Leontyne Price and Dorothy Maynor, and baritones Edward Boatner and William Warfield are only a few of those who benefited from Hayes’ influence.

He taught privately and, in 1950, at Boston College. He received numerous awards, such as the NAACP’s Spingarn medal. Roland Hayes died at the age of 89 at Boston General Hospital from pneumonia. Various sources report the date as either December 31, 1976, or January 1, 1977; however, hospital officials indicate that the composer and vocalist expired on January 1. Author Marva Carter summed up Hayes’ life and career:

Hayes’ life of almost ninety years reveals a remarkable story of a man who went from the plantation to the palace, performing before kings and queens, with the finest international and American orchestras, in segregated communities before blacks and whites alike. He was of small stature, dignified manner, and non-violent persuasion. He chose to overcome racism by example and in doing so became a trailblazer. When he sang, art became more than polished excellence. It appealed to something universal, something beyond the emotions, and something beyond the intellect, something one could call the soul.8

Hayes’ contributions to the development of concert spirituals were reflected in his work as a performer, composer, scholar, and educator. His earliest recording of spirituals came from a self-funded session with Columbia in ca. 1918. Although he was dissatisfied with the artistic results, he was able to use the monies raised from the album sales to support his professional development. During a 1922 session for Vocalion Records, Hayes again recorded several concert spirituals by Harry T. Burleigh (1966–1949), including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” plus his own setting of “Sit Down.” He returned to Columbia between 1939 and 1941 to record several songs, including his settings of several spirituals. In 2013, the Library of Congress selected Roland Hayes’ 1940 recording of “Were You There” for inclusion into its National Recording Registry.

Album label of Roland Hayes’ recording of “Were You There,” produced by Columbia Masterworks, 1940

There have been numerous tributes to Hayes, especially in his adopted home of Boston. As part of a concert commemoration of Hayes’ life and musical contributions, the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned and premiered George Walker’s Lilacs, which received the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1996. The Roland Hayes School of Music program was instituted at nearby Madison Park Technical-Vocational High School.


1“A Bouncy Seventy-Five: Roland Hayes, Despite His Age, Gives Concerts, Teaches and Reminisces,” New York Times, 3 June 1962, 127.


3MacKinley Helm. Angel Mo’ and Her Son, Roland Hayes. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1942, 99.

4Christopher A. Brooks and Robert Sims. Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015, 67).

5“A Bouncy Seventy-Five: Roland Hayes, Despite His Age, Gives Concerts, Teaches and Reminisces,” New York Times, 3 June 1962, 127.

6“Negro Spirituals Win Hayes Praise,” The Washington Post, 1 February, 1931, M12.

7James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. The Books of American Negro Spirituals. (New York: Viking Press, 1925, 1926; Da Capo Press, [1977], 29.

8Marva Griffin Carter, “Roland Hayes–Expressor of the Soul in Song (1887-1977),” The Black Perspective in Music, Autumn 1977, 188.

Musical excerpt “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, recorded by Roland Hayes in 1918, from Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922, companion CD to the book Lost Sounds by Tim Brooks. Archeophone Records, 2005.

The author thanks Reginald Didham of the Boston Conservatory for speaking with Afrika Hayes-Lambe, who kindly supplied information related to her father’s cause of death. The author also owes another debt of gratitude to the late musicologist, Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma, for obtaining confirmation from Boston General Hospital on Hayes’ date of death.

More About The Singer

Roland Hayes was profiled by tenor George Shirley on April 1, 1974, for Shirley’s radio broadcast, Classical Music and the Afro-American. Listen to the historic broadcast, hosted by WNYC, which includes performance excerpts.

databaseThe Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.

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Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: May 19, 2019. Accessed:.