William Warfield (1920-2002)
by Randye Jones
I wanted it all. I wanted “Show Boat” and “Porgy,” as well as Brahms and Fauré. I wanted the spirituals along with the boogie-woogie, and grand opera, too. I wanted the Hollywood film and I wanted the bistro gig, the international tour and the White House command performance. I wanted to teach music, to bring to a new generation the lessons of my life in art. I wanted to play a role in world culture–not just “Negro culture” not just “Western European culture.” I shared the dream of every artist, regardless of his or her origins, to find my patch in that great tapestry of art. If West Helena, Arkansas, wasn’t big enough for my sharecropper daddy, the East Coast cocktail lounge circuit wasn’t big enough for my career. I wanted all the wonders of music, a taste of everything that the muses had to offer.1
Thus, bass-baritone William Warfield described the dilemma he faced as a young musician who was considering the direction he would pursue in his professional life. He knew of many African Americans who had become successful in the arena of professional popular music, but a considerably smaller number of singers who had found success in the world of “Classical” or Western Art music.
As his career progressed, he obtained many of the successes he imagined, as a singer, an actor, and as a teacher who shared the knowledge and skill he developed with his students.
William Caesar Warfield was born in West Helena, Arkansas, on January 22, 1920. He was the eldest of five children in a family of sharecroppers. Both of his parents, Robert and Bertha McCamery Warfield, were the children of African American slaves.
By the time William reached the age of five, his father had become a Baptist minister and relocated the family to Rochester, New York, where the elder Warfield served as pastor of Mount Vernon Church. In his autobiography, the singer described the neighborhood where he grew up as, “a place where the ‘colored’ and the Polish and the Irish and the Italian grew up in the same mixed neighborhood, where the ethnic differences that separated us were usually no more significant than the varied aromas that wafted out of our mothers’ kitchens–spicy tomato flavors from the Madafferis, greens and ham hocks from the Warfields–while we played together in our adjoining back yards.”2
Both parents were musically inclined, so William’s father encouraged his sons’ musical development with the purchase of an upright piano for the house. William studied both piano and organ, supporting his studies–and the family’s finances–with various part-time jobs. He also sang as a boy soprano in the youth choir at his father’s church. By the time he reached high school, Warfield’s voice had transitioned to baritone, its quality earning him numerous solos with the school choir. He began voice lessons with one of his high school teachers, who helped him prepare the Spiritual, “Deep River” by Harry T. Burleigh, for a school assembly program. The audience’s reception of the 16-year-old’s performance convinced him that he wanted to pursue a professional musical career. The following year, Warfield met soprano Dorothy Maynor after her recital at the Eastman Theater and asked her for her autograph. He later said that when she asked him about his plans for the future and he replied:
“I’m going to be a singer, like you,” I told her. She smiled as she completed her inscription on the photograph I had handed her. I watched her and reflected that she was as beautiful in person as she had sounded on stage. She was occupied with other guests in her dressing room, so I thanked her for the autograph and for the concert, and stumbled back out into the Rochester afternoon. When I looked down at her signature I was instantly elevated: Dorothy Maynor had written, “To a colleague.”3
At the same time that Warfield continued his music studies and entered various scholarship competitions, he earned a New York state cosmetology license and graduated from high school. He was admitted as a voice student to the Eastman School of Music with a full scholarship. In addition to taking the regular musical course work–including foreign language studies, he participated in the community theater and was hired to play minor roles for the local radio station.
Warfield was drafted into the United States Army during World War II after the December, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and just before he could complete his studies at Eastman–the school conferred his degree in 1942, however, based on course credits he had obtained before entry into the Army. Once completing basic training, Warfield was initially assigned to perform menial tasks in a segregated ordnance unit until he was able to convince his superior officers that his fluency in German and Italian made him better suited to assignment to an intelligence unit. He also continued his vocal studies and performed both Classical concerts and popular music programs for the troops when time permitted. In December 1943, he successfully auditioned for the role of Husky Miller in Billy Rose’s Broadway production of Carmen Jones, a role Warfield’s military commitment would not allow him time to assume, yet the singer credited the opportunity for later advances in his professional career.
Going from Stage to Screen: Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, and More
With the conclusion of the war, Warfield was able to use funds provided by the GI Bill to begin study for his master’s degree at Eastman. Again, his studies were interrupted when he auditioned for and earned a lead role in the musical revue, Call Me Mister, which was preparing for a national tour. He regularly experienced racial discrimination along with fellow tour performer, baritone William Marshall. Warfield described their diverse reactions to the numerous instances of racial bigotry they and others in the Black community faced:
That was the climate that was always around us then. Neither William Marshall nor I were on the barricades of the movement–each of us, in our own way, worked out our commitment on a different kind of stage–but temperamentally you could say that Bill Marshall and Bill Warfield represented opposite extremes within our own band of the spectrum. He didn’t miss a single nuance of even unconscious racism. I shrugged if off; racism was going to be the racist’s handicap, not mine.4
After the tour, Warfield settled in New York with the goals of enhancing his vocal repertoire and his professional connections. He studied with Yves Tinayre and Otto Herz to further develop his classical repertoire, and he simultaneously accepted work at various popular music venues. He played the role of Cal in Marc Blitzstein’s Regina in October 1949 and gave his Town Hall concert debut on March 19, 1950. The reviews he received were very positive, including this one in the New York Times:
Mr. Warfield held his listeners with everything he did, and they revelled in his voice for its pure sound, from its warm, rich depths to its particularly beautiful soft high tones. And he won them still further in his encores, when he supplanted Otto Herz at the piano and played his own accompaniments for two Jubilee Shouts.5
He was immediately signed for a three-month tour of Australia. While there, he learned that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was seeking someone for the role of Joe in their film remake of the musical, Show Boat. After receiving Warfield’s audition recording of the role’s signature song, “Old Man River,” as well as copies of numerous reviews, the film makers invited the baritone to come to Hollywood as soon as the Australian tour was completed.
The young baritone was asked to record the closing scene version of the song for later dubbing into the film. The session would normally involve a day-long series of recordings with orchestra and technical crew in order to get a clean take. Certainly, using a singer who was a novice to the process would require at least as much effort. However, Warfield described what became an extraordinary event:
Of course, it wasn’t just that my singing was on the mark. What was equally remarkable, in a room full of things that could go wrong, was that everything–the conductor and his orchestra, the technicians’ balance of the microphones on the strings and the percussion and the horns, the condition of the equipment itself, the absence of any stray noises–everything came together so perfectly on the very first take. They talked about that on the set for weeks, and I understand it’s still a bit of Hollywood lore–the one-take “Old Man River.”6
Warfield’s success in Show Boat was quickly rewarded with an offer for another role, this time as Jim in an MGM project, Huck Finn, with Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye. The project was cancelled due to scheduling conflicts, so Warfield anticipated a return to regular concertizing and nightclub engagements. After returning to New York, he additionally agreed to play the signature role for the American National Theatre and Academy’s new production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Together with the opera’s producers, he selected the young soprano Leontyne Price for the role of Bess in this international tour. As rehearsals of the opera and other preparations for the tour progressed, the two singers became romantically involved and were married just before the company departed for the European portion of the tour.
Before the cast left for Europe, however, they gave a successful performance in Washington, DC, in the newly desegregated National Theater. The performance was attended by President Harry Truman and numerous political officials who returned to town specifically for the August 1952 event. Also in the audience was Todd Duncan, who had taken the title role for the opera’s premiere 17 years earlier. The performances in Vienna and Berlin were overwhelmingly successful.
Warfield opened with Price and the cast in London’s Stoll Theater, but the recitals he had also scheduled required him to return to the United States shortly thereafter. He and Price had anticipated that they would only be separated until the opera cast’s scheduled participation in a year-long tour to begin when the cast returned to New York. The opera’s producers, however, decided to shorten the European tour so that they could accept an offer to open at New York’s Ziegfeld Theatre much earlier than planned. Warfield would not request release from his previous obligations, so the New York premiere served as the beginning of an extended separation for the couple.
Warfield and Price gave a few concerts–including a 1954 concert with the Boston Symphony under the direction of Leonard Bernstein–together, but their professional careers took them into completely different directions. Price had begun her operatic career at the perfect moment when her considerable talents would be allowed to flourish on the world and American stages. Warfield, in contrast, found the opportunities for an African American male opera singer remained too limited, whereas the concert tours and popular music scenes still presented him with ample means of professional fulfillment. The couple separated in 1958 and finally divorced amicably in 1972.
Spreading the Word with Music
In 1955, Warfield toured Europe, highlighted with a critically successful appearance La Scala, as soloist with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His management also took advantage of the performance opportunities opened by the United States Department of State, which wanted to demonstrate the country’s rich cultural diversity to the world. The bass-baritone parlayed his extensive repertoire and experience as a touring musician into a series of six international tours sponsored by the State Department. One of his stops on the African tour was to Rhodesia, a country still governed at that time by its apartheid policies. Warfield described the extraordinary arrangements made to accommodate his presence:
As a black man I couldn’t even walk into a white post office to mail my letters. Because I would certainly have encountered problems just walking through a park and perhaps using the wrong water fountain, I was escorted by dignitaries or their deputies everywhere I went. It was all very white-gloves, but it was nonetheless clear: For all practical purposes, I was in the protective custody of the officials. It was as if I were hermetically sealed from the country and its problems. I could observe it, but I was protected from it.7
Through the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, Warfield continued to maintain a busy performance schedule of recitals, orchestral concerts, and television appearances. He and songstress Muriel Rahn become the first African American concert artists presented on television with their 1951 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. In May 1958, Warfield premiered Set 2 of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs with the composer at the piano. (He had previously premiered the orchestrated version of Set 1 three years earlier and recorded Set 2 in 1953).
In 1964, Warfield starred in the New York City Light Opera Company’s Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, with Veronica Tyler as Bess and Robert Guillaume as Sportin’ Life. Warfield also essayed the role of Porgy in annual performances of the opera with the Vienna Volksoper from 1965-1974. He was cast as “De Lawd” in the live television production of Marc Connelly’s Green Pastures. He made two recordings of Handel’s Messiah, one with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and the other with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as a 1963 recording of selections from Porgy and Bess with Price.
While excerpts from Porgy and Bess, “Old Man River,” and Negro Spirituals were life-long staples of his concert performances, Warfield also began to study new repertoire better suited to his maturing voice. Years later, he discussed the changes in his voice and the music he selected for it:
When I was younger, I did a lot of baritone arias such as “Eri tu” (from “The Masked Ball” by Verdi) with the high G. But when I hit 30 and my voice settled into a bass-baritone range, those were increasingly difficult. In the stride of my career, I did bass-baritone literature such as “Ella giammati m’amo” (from “Don Carlo”) and other Verdi bass arias. I never did the lowest bass parts. It had to do with the sound. As I got a bit older, the arias from “Boris Godounov” (by Mussorgsky) fitted me like a glove. It’s a settled sound that resonates lower than what a high baritone sounds like. So it just happened naturally and I went with what felt most comfortable in my voice.8
Warfield made his Carnegie Hall premiere in February, 1965. He noted that:
… I had the honor of having Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson sitting in a box I had reserved. Also seated with them was Hall Johnson. Although I never get nervous, when I walked out there and saw my idols sitting up there, I got so nervous I could hardly sing.9
He joined the music faculty at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana from 1975 to 1990 and became a visiting instructor at Northwestern University in 1994. The “William Warfield Scholarship Fund” was established in 1977 to provide financial support to talented and deserving students of the Eastman music school.
Warfield returned to Carnegie Hall in 1975 for a gala celebration of the 25th anniversary of his Town Hall debut, and in January, 1987, he joined soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs and other singers for a program of Negro Spirituals by Hayes, Johnson, Burleigh, William Dawson, and Edward Boatner. Warfield described his relationship with Spirituals over his career:
Unfortunately, the spiritual went through a period of time, even with black artists, when they did not particularly use it. I have myself done solo recitals which have had to do with the spiritual. I think I’m one of the few who consistently always program the Negro spiritual as a part of my program. Even in my debut, I combined spirituals with 13th-century songs in Latin, almost in a modal tone, and interspersed spirituals with religious pieces dating back to the 13th century.10
He was elected president of the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1984, and he was the recipient of several honorary doctoral degrees for his musical achievements. He joined the board of the Schiller Institute in 1996. As part of his service with the institute, Warfield held workshops, often with famed Metropolitan Opera vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee, and master classes for young singers. In an 2001 article for American Almanac, Warfield talked about his intent when coaching students on the Spiritual:
And when I work with young people now–especially young black people–I work with them in the sense of getting [them] to know what the Spiritual was all about in the first place, and why they’re singing it, so they know what they are singing in all its aspects. Then they can know how to approach singing it. Then we can go into various kinds of things to approach later on, so they can get its full meaning and emotion across. 11
The focus of Warfield’s career shifted in his later years. He significantly reduced the frequency of his singing engagements, instead, employing his voice as a narrator for numerous orchestral and Jazz works. He won a Grammy Award in 1984 for his narration of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. Later recordings featuring Warfield included Spirituals: 200 Years of African-American Spirituals (1993), Three Generations Live (2000), with baritones Benjamin Matthews and Robert Sims, Dreamer: A Portrait of Langston Hughes (2002), with tenor Darryl Taylor, and Something within Me (released posthumously in 2004), with Bill Carter’s Jazz Band.
The bass-baritone had contracted for another performance at Carnegie Hall in March, 2003, but in July 2002, Warfield fell in his Chicago residence and suffered a broken neck. He was placed in an area rehabilitation facility, but complications set in, leading to the singer’s death on August 26, 2002. He was laid to rest in the town of his youth, Rochester, New York.
William Warfield’s desire to have it all in his professional life nearly succeeded. In the closing chapter of his 1991 autobiography, My Music & My Life, he wrote that he had to invent his own pathway:
… Because there was no definite career field for me, at any point along the way. Thank God for my heroes, people who, like me, also had to invent themselves professionally, people like Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson. Because there wasn’t a definite course for a black classical singer to follow, I never had a groove to fall into. Which is another way of saying I was never afraid to try anything, on the grounds that it might be a distraction from my “true” course. My course wasn’t true. In the long run, that may have been a blessing; otherwise I certainly would never have enjoyed the adventures I did.
Opera wasn’t ready for me, or any black male. Hollywood was still wrestling with its own soul, and not ready to open up to African-American themes. Broadway, and the theater in general, was still struggling with the same issues. As I progressed along my career ladder I found a few rungs missing, and sometimes had to look for a foothold in the most improbable places.
But it never occurred to me to give up. What kept me going, I now realize, was that even though I often had no clear idea of how to get there, I always had a clear idea of where I was ultimately headed. I had the example of my heroes; they had proved it could be done. And I had the incentive of my art: I always knew that beyond the nightclubs and the films and the Broadway shows, my destiny lay in the sublime realm of classical music. So I usually found those other footholds where the rungs were missing–and I learned how to jump!12
1William Warfield and Alton Miller. My Music & My Life. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing, ©1991, 4.
5R.P., “William Warfield Scores in Recital: Baritone Displays Versatility of Talent in First Local Program at Town Hall.” New York Times, 20 March 1950, 18.
8Warfield, William. “Conversation Piece: William Warfield (A Celebration of His 70th Birthday).” Interview by Bruce Duffie. WNIB, 14 April 1988. Accessed 13 February 2016. http://www.bruceduffie.com/warfield1.html.
9Gloster B. Current. “An Interview with William Warfield.” Crisis, January 1985, 34.
10C. Gerald Fraser. “Spirituals To Be Sung at Carnegie.” The New York Times, 2 January 1987.
11Schlanger, Harley. “Dialogue on the African-American Spiritual: With William Warfield and Sylvia Olden Lee.” American Almanac, March 2001. Accessed 9 May 2017. http://members.tripod.com/american_almanac/warfield.htm.
The Singer Speaks
William Warfield was interviewed by tenor George Shirley on January 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.
The 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.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: February 22, 2024. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/william-warfield-biography.