American bass-baritone William Warfield is an accomplished concert performer who is best known for the roles he played on stage in Porgy and Bess and Showboat. Warfield’s successful career took off when he debuted at a triumphant recital at New York City’s Town Hall in 1950. At the time, opportunities were scarce for African American singers, but Warfield came to be known as a “national treasure,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
William Caesar Warfield was born in Helena, Arkansas, on January 22, 1920, the oldest of five sons of Robert Warfield, a Baptist minister, and Bertha McCamey. Warfield remembers singing in his father’s choir as a child, and he studied piano at an early age. He attended primary and secondary school in Rochester, New York, where Robert Warfield had moved the family in search of better educational and employment opportunities. Warfield was a good student and pursued his vocal studies in high school. Unexcited by the prospect of suffering the life of a singer in New York, Warfield originally aspired to teach music, not perform it.
After winning a vocal competition in his senior year, for which the prize was a scholarship to the music school of his choice, Warfield majored in voice at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, graduating in 1942. He took four years off from his musical studies to serve in military intelligence in the U. S. Army during World War II, but returned to Eastman to begin work on a master’s degree and become a teacher. His academic plans were cut short when he landed a role in the hit Broadway musical Call Me Mister. That role led to another in Heywood’s Set My People Free in 1948 and Blitzstein’s Regina in 1950. Warfield continued his vocal training during this time under the American Theatre Wing’s Professional Training Program, studying with Yves Tinayre and pianist Otto Herz.
Warfield sung his triumphant debut recital at New York’s Town Hall in 1950 to critical raves. It was with this concert that his career as a concert singer took off in earnest. A career singing opera was closed to him at the time as African Americans had yet to secure starring operatic roles. But by the time African American singer Marian Anderson had broken that barrier and made her operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, Warfield was already well on his way as an oratorio singer. Warfield’s wildly successful debut led to an invitation from the Australian Broadcasting Company to tour the continent and perform 35 concerts.
While on tour in Australia, Warfield signed on to star as Joe the dock hand in MGM’s 1951 film version of Showboat, which would forever associate him with the song “OI’ Man River.” Moved as a teen by Paul Robeson’s performance of the song in the 1936 film version of Showboat Warfield quickly learned the song. For the film, Warfield recorded the song in one take, which brought tears to the eyes of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. Warfield later joked that Mayer wept not for how well Warfield performed the song, but because of the money that was saved on repeat takes. Warfield reprised the role on a 1992 recording of Showboat. A People magazine critic wrote that the baritone sung “Ol’ Man River” with “equal parts rage and resignation.” Warfield once determined that he first sang “Ol’ Man River” at age 16 in a high school vocal combo. Though he has sung it countless times, “It’s different every time,” he told the Chicago Tribune, depending on his feelings the day of the performance. “Sometimes there’s a sadness to it, sometimes it’s really laid back, and sometimes it’s even angry.” The most difficult time he had singing it, he recalled, was four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “I had to hold back my emotion somewhat to keep from breaking down altogether,” he said.
Warfield then agreed to star in Porgy and Bess alongside soprano Leontyne Price; the parts became signature roles for them both. They began performing together in 1952 and were married that year. Soon their careers began taking off in different directions. Warfield pursued his career in the musical theater while Price followed a course that would lead her to a serious operatic career. They separated in 1958 and divorced in 1972. “The problem was two careers. That’s all it was,” Warfield told the Chicago Tribune. The two remained close friends and neither of them has remarried. “I guess we both figured we had the best,” he said.
During the 1950s, Warfield’s career reached new heights. He toured as a soloist with the Philadelphia
Born William Caesar Warfield on January 22, 1920, in Helena, AK; married Leontyne Price, 1952; separated, 1958; divorced, 1972.Education: Bachelor of music degree, Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY, 1942.
Served four years in the U. S. Army; debut recital at New York’s Town Hall, 1950; starred in MGM’s film version of Showboat, 1951; starred in Pouly and Bess with soprano Leontyne Price; toured West Africa, the Near East, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Cuba sponsored by the U. S. State Department, 1956, 1958, 1959; appeared on the television show Green Pastures, 1957, 1959; revived Porgy in Porgy and Bess, 1961, 1964, 1965-72; revived Joe in Showboat, 1966, 1971-72; professor, University of Illinois’ School of Music in Urbana, 1974-90; celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his Town Hall debut at Carnegie Hall, 1975; narrated Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, 1984; published William Warfield: My Music and My Life (with Alton Miller), 1991; professor of music, Northwestern University, 1994—.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Spoken Word Recording for Lincoln Portrait, 1984; Governors’ Award, State of Illinois; induction into the Lincoln Academy (Illinois’ highest honor bestowed upon a citizen); numerous honorary degrees.
Addresses:Office —Northwestern University, School of Music, 711 Elgin Road, Evanston, IL 60208.
Orchestra in 1955 and performed in West Africa, the Near East, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Cuba on tours sponsored by the U. S. State Department in 1956, 1958, and 1959. He also appeared on television as De Lawd on NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of Green Pastures in 1957 and 1959. Warfield recorded frequently during this time and began to study technique with Rosa Ponelle, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera.
The 1960s and 1970s saw Warfield reviving his signature roles in Porgy and Bess and Showboat He played Porgy in 1961 and 1964 productions by the New York City Opera Company and again at the Volksoper in Vienna from 1965 to 1972. He appeared as Joe in a 1966 production of Showboat at Lincoln Center in New York City and at the Vienna Volksoper in 1971 and 1972. He performed and traveled heavily during this time, appearing at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico in 1962 and 1963, at the Athens Festival in 1966, and at the Pacem in Terra II Convocation in Geneva in 1967. He sang in a staging of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi in Central City, Colorado, in 1972. Warfield celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his Town Hall debut with a recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall for the Duke Ellington Center in 1975.
Warfield’s strong dramatic presence led him to narrate Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, a speaking part which incorporated portions of President Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. He narrated Copland’s work many times over the years and won a 1984 Grammy Award in the spoken word category for his recording with the Eastman Philharmonia Orchestra. Warfield delivered the narration from memory years later in a live performance at a 1991 Copland memorial concert at Lincoln Center. At the event, Warfield, “with poise, eloquent phrasing and exceptional dramatic timing,” according to one Los Angeles Times critic, “turned political speech into inspiring poetry.” Warfield also spoke from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech when he narrated Jonathan Brace Brown’s Legacy of Vision at the Nashville Symphony’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. 1997 tribute concert.
Warfield did pursue his original teaching aspirations and balanced those with his performance demands beginning in 1974 when he started as a music professor at the University of Illinois School of Music in Urbana. He retired as chairman of the voice faculty there in 1990 and went on to become a visiting professor at Eastern Illinois University and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University in 1994. While he taught, he maintained a demanding touring schedule, narrating the Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s concert performance of Porgy and Bess and performing at countless concerts. He also found time to serve on the boards of the Lyric Opera Center Board in Chicago, the National Music Council, and support the National Association of Negro Musicians. He has received honorary degrees including an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Arkansas in 1972; an honorary degree from Boston University in 1982; an honorary Doctor of Human Letters degree from Augustana College in 1983; and an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Milliken University in 1984.
At 80, Warfield was still garnering attention and critical reviews for his work. At an age when most performers have long since retired, Warfield saw no reason to slow down. “Age has nothing to do with anything,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “as long as this old voice holds out and I still enjoy it, I’ll never stop singing.”
Show Boat (1951 soundtrack), MGM, 1951; reissued, Metro, 1966; reissued, Sony, 1990; reissued, Columbia, 1992.
Show Boat (1996 Broadway revival cast), RCA, 1966; reissued, RCA, 1992.
(With the Eastman Philharmonia Orchestra) Copland: Lincoln Portrait, 1984.
Broadway Greatest Hits, Sony Classics, 1996.
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess Scenes, BCA, 1999.
Baker, Theodore, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer Books, 1992.
Smith, Jessie Carney, editor, Notable Black American Men, Gale Research, 1998.
Warfield, William (with Alton Miller), William Warfield: My Music and My Life, Sagamore, 1991.
Chicago Tribune, October 26, 2000.
Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2000, p. F2.
People, September 7, 1992, p. 26.
Riverwalk, Live from the Landing, http://www.riverwalk.org/ profiles/warfield. htm (April 24, 2001).
“William Warfield,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 24, 2001).
Additional material was provided by Northwestern University, 2001.