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Robeson, Paul (Leroy Bustill)

Robeson, Paul (Leroy Bustill)

Robeson, Paul (Leroy Bustill) , American singer, actor, and political activist; b. Princeton, N.J., April 9, 1898; d. Philadelphia, Pa., Jan. 23, 1976. Possessing a deep, resonant voice and a commanding presence, Robeson simultaneously pursued careers as a concert artist and as a stage and film actor. His performance of “OI’ Man River” (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) is especially memorable due to his several recordings and his appearance in the 1936 film Show Boat. His 1940 recording of “Ballad for Americans” (music by Earl Robinson, lyrics by John Latouche), later inducted into the NARAS Hall of Fame, remains a stirring statement. But he was equally effective acting in plays by Eugene O’Neill and as the first African-American to portray Othello on Broadway. His career was effectively stifled from the late 1940s due to his outspoken political views. Since his death he has been widely recognized as a forerunner in the pursuit of racial equality.

Robeson’s father, William Drew Robeson (originally Roberson), was a former slave who became a minister. His mother, Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, was a teacher. Robeson displayed early ability as a scholar and athlete; in 1915 he won an academic scholarship to Rutgers, where he earned varsity letters in several sports and was twice chosen Ail-American in football. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa as class valedictorian, then attended Columbia Univ. Law School. On Aug. 17, 1921, he married hospital chemist Eslanda Cardozo Goode; they had a son, Paul Robeson Jr.

In 1920, Robeson starred in an amateur production of the play Simon the Cyrenian at the Harlem YMCA. He made his professional debut in April 1922 in Taboo, a short-lived play. Shortly after, he joined the singing group the Four Harmony Kings in the long-running revue Shuffle Along. He went to England and toured with Taboo, retitled Voodoo, making his British debut at Blackpool on July 20, 1922.

In 1923, Robeson appeared in the chorus of The Plantation Revue. Meanwhile, he continued to attend Columbia Law, from which he graduated that February. Though he never took the bar examination, he worked briefly in a law office. In 1924 he joined the theatrical troupe the Provincetown Players and starred in a revival of O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, followed by the playwright’s controversial new work All God’s Chillun Got Wings (N.Y., May 15, 1924), which concerned an interracial marriage. That fall he made his movie debut in the silent film Body and Soul.

On April 19, 1925, the Provincetown Players sponsored Robeson’s concert debut in a recital of spirituals at the Greenwich Village Theatre; in the wake of its success he acquired a booking agent for concert work and signed a recording contract with Victor. He made his London acting debut in The Emperor Jones on Sept. 10. In December he scored his first record hit with the spiritual “Steal Away.” He undertook a U.S. concert tour in the first quarter of 1926, then returned to Broadway, where he appeared in the play Black Boy (N. Y., Oct. 6, 1926).

Robeson toured Europe in the fall of 1927. He enjoyed a second record hit with “Deep River,” another spiritual, in October. In March and April 1928 he appeared on Broadway in the play Porgy (based on the Du Böse Hey ward novel that later was the source for the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess).

Robeson had been the original choice to play Joe in Show Boat on Broadway, but he had become unavailable when the musical was delayed. After it opened on Broadway, on Dec. 27, 1927, he was cast in the London production, which opened on May 3, 1928. On March 1 he had recorded “Ol’ Man River” backed by Paul Whiteman and His Orch.; the recording became the biggest hit of his career.

Robeson focused primarily on Europe over the next few years. He toured Central Europe in the spring of 1929 and again in the winter of 1930, made a second silent film, Borderline, in Switzerland in March 1930, and appeared in London in Othello in May 1930 and in O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in May 1931. He returned to Broadway for a revival of Show Boat (N.Y., May 19, 1932) and, with other members of the cast, including Helen Morgan, recorded songs from the musical for an album of 78-rpm records on Brunswick (later Columbia), one of the first cast albums ever made; it was inducted into the NARAS Hall of Fame in 1991.

In 1933, Robeson starred in a movie version of The Emperor Jones, his first appearance in a sound film. As in most of his films, he sang several songs. He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934, where he was impressed by the absence of racism and became an advocate of the communist regime.

In the mid-1930s, while living in England, Robeson alternated stage appearances with performances in the British films Sanders of the River (1935), Song of Freedom (1936), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), Big Fella (1937), and Jericho (released in the U.S. as Dark Sands;1938), though he later expressed dissatisfaction with their colonialist themes and racial stereotypes. His only Hollywood film of the period was Show Boat. He also traveled widely in Europe, returning to the Soviet Union and singing for the Loyalist forces in the Spanish civil war.

In 1939, Robeson found a film more to his liking, playing a mineworker in the British movie The Proud Valley (1940), but it was his last starring role on film. (His last movie appearance was in Tales of Manhattan in 1942.) He returned to live in the U.S. in the fall of 1939. In November his live radio performance of “Ballad for Americans” was a sensation, and the subsequent recording, spread across both sides of two 78s, sold well. John Henry (N.Y., Jan. 10, 1940) was an unsuccessful musical, running only 47 performances, but Robeson scored a triumph with Othello (N.Y., Oct. 19, 1943), which ran 296 performances on Broadway and toured the U.S. into 1945. From 1945 to 1947 he also undertook an extensive American concert tour.

In the anticommunist fervor of the post-World War II era in America, Robeson became a target. Though he denied to a Congressional committee that he was a communist in 1946, he was closely allied with left-wing causes, including the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace, of whose Progressive Party Robeson was a founder. After giving a speech in Paris in April 1949 in which he suggested that blacks would refuse to fight a war against the Soviet Union, he was vilified. A concert he gave in Peekskill, N.Y., in the fall turned into a riot when attendees were attacked by right-wing fanatics. Robeson’s passport was revoked in 1950 and, dropped by his booking agency, he had to arrange his own concert appearances on a much more modest scale. He was also forced to make his own records through his Othello Recording Co. It was not until 1958 that the Supreme Court restored his right to travel.

As the McCarthy era gave way, he gave a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall in May 1958, which was recorded and released by Vanguard Records, then left for England, where he appeared in Othello with the Royal Shakespeare Co. at Stratford-on-Avon in April 1959. Robeson returned to the U.S. in 1963 and lived in retirement until his death following a stroke at the age of 77.

Writings

Here I Stand (N.Y., 1958); P. Foner, ed., P. R. Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918–74 (N.Y., 1978).

Bibliography

E. Robeson (his wife), Paul Robeson, Negro (N.Y., 1930); S. Graham, Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World (N.Y., 1946); M. Seton, Paul Robeson (London, 1958); E. Hoyt, Paul Robeson: The American Othello (Cleveland, Ohio, 1967); E. Greenfield, Paul Robeson (1975); C. Wright, Robeson, Labor’s Forgotten Champion (Detroit, 1975); R. Dent, et al., eds., Paul Robeson: Tributes and SelectedWRITINGS (N.Y., 1976); D. Gilliam, Paul Robeson, All-American (Washington, D.C., 1976); Editors of Freedom-ways, Paul Robeson, The Great Forerunner (N.Y., 1978); S. Robeson, The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson (N.Y., 1981); L. Davis, A Paul Robeson Research Guide (Westport, Conn., 1983); C. Bell, Paul Robeson’s Last Days in Philadelphia (Bryn Mawr, Pa., 1986); R. Ramdin, Paul Robeson: The Man and His Mission (London, 1987); M. Duberman PaulRobeson (N.Y., 1988); S. Erlich, Paul Robeson (1988); P. and F. McKissack, Paul Robeson: A Voice to Remember (1992); L. Brown, The Young Paul Robeson: On My Journey Now (Boulder, Colo., 1997).

—William Ruhlmann

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