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William Caesar Warfield was a noted African-American bass-baritone concert artist who had an extensive career that included major roles in two Hollywood films as well as stints on stage and on television. Probably no one ever performed “Ol’ Man River” from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat more times than Warfield, who performed it in several languages.
William Warfield was born on January 22, 1920, to Robert Warfield and Bertha McCamery Warfield in West Helena (Phillips County). He spent only a few years in Arkansas; however, because of a strong family background in Arkansas and Mississippi, he described himself as “an Arkansas boy from tip to toe.” His multiracial ancestry included a paternal grandfather who appeared in photographs to be a white man and Native American ancestry on both sides of his family.
Warfield’s family moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1922, where his father worked in a meat-packing plant. In 1925, the family moved to Rochester, New York, where Warfield’s father entered the Baptist ministry. Warfield attended the public schools in Rochester and took piano lessons. After winning the National Music Educators League’s singing competition in 1938, he entered the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He was drafted into the army in 1942 but received his degree from Eastman. Because his college education included language classes in French, German, and Italian, Warfield was transferred to military intelligence and never saw active service.
In 1946, he was hired as the lead in a touring company performing Harold Rome’s musical Call Me Mister. After the show’s run, he found work singing and playing piano in clubs and landed parts in other shows. He was working in a club in Toronto, Canada, when a patron, Walter Carr, decided to finance Warfield’s Town Hall debut in New York City on March 19, 1950. Warfield impressed the critics and immediately snagged an extended tour of Australia. This, too, proved to be a great success and was followed by his first film, a remake of Show Boat, in which Warfield sang “Ol’ Man River” for the first time commercially.
Porgy and Bess was his next theatrical endeavor. The Bess in the cast was soprano Leontyne Price, whom Warfield married in 1952. The marriage did not survive the stresses of their musical careers—they separated in 1958 but did not divorce until 1972. Price’s career as a Metropolitan Opera star began with her debut in 1957, while Warfield, despite his strong theatrical abilities, was limited largely by his gender to a concert career.
Warfield undertook six tours for the U.S. Department of State. His stage appearances were highlighted by Porgy and Bess in New York in 1961. He performed Porgy and Bess in Vienna from 1965 to 1974, as well as a German-language touring version of Show Boat, although audiences requested that he sing “Ol’ Man River” in English.
Television also enlisted Warfield. He played De Lawd in Marc Connelly’s Green Pastures, a Hallmark Hall of Fame production done “live” in 1957 and again in 1959. He narrated Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, for which he won a Grammy in 1984. During a European tour with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in 1976, he narrated the text in French in Paris and in German in Vienna.
Warfield began teaching in 1975 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and, after 1994, at Northwestern University in Chicago. He was active in concerts and dramatic readings, occasionally sharing the stage with fellow Arkansan Robert McFerrin Sr. He served on the boards of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) and the Schiller Institute.
Warfield’s first records were made in 1950 for Columbia and consisted of “Five Sea Chanties.” He sang bass on recordings of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem Mass with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Bruno Walter. He gave the world premieres of both sets of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” in 1952 and 1958. His last works consisted of a jazz and spirituals album released in 2004, Something Within Me, and narration for Dreamer: A Portrait of Langston Hughes, made up of songs set to Hughes’s texts, released in 2002.
Warfield received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1972. He performed in Helena (Phillips County) on October 23, 1987, in the Warfield Concerts, a community concert series, and gave a poetry and song program at Arkansas State University (ASU) in Jonesboro (Craighead County) on October 14, 1999. Warfield remained an active performer until his death from a fall at his home on August 25, 2002. Had Warfield been born a half century later, he likely would have become a major operatic star. Instead, as he observed in his memoir, My Music & My Life (1991), “Opera wasn’t ready for me, or any black male.”
For additional information:Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. Vol. 6. New York: Schimer Publishing, 2001.
Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Warfield, William, with Alton Miller. William Warfield: My Music & My Life. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing Inc., 1991.
Michael B. DouganJonesboro, Arkansas
Last Updated 9/23/2013
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