Delta Stories is a new monthly column that features people, places and events of the Arkansas Delta.
Helena is known for its musical heritage, primarily in blues and gospel. But, there is one individual who made a name for himself in the world of opera – William Warfield. He had a powerful bass-baritone voice that lent itself well to the concert, opera and musical theatre stages, as well as recordings, television and film.
Warfield was born in West Helena, AR in January of 1920. He was the oldest of five sons in a family of sharecroppers. Both of his parents were children of African American slaves.
By the time Warfield was five his father had become a Baptist minister who was called to serve as pastor of Mt. Vernon church in Rochester, NY. In his autobiography he described the neighborhood that he grew up in as a place where the colored, the Polish, the Irish, and the Italian all lived and played together without regard to their ethnic differences.
Warfield’s parents were musically inclined and encouraged their son’s musical development by purchasing an upright piano for the house. He studied both piano and organ and worked various jobs to support his studies and the family’s finances. He also sang as a boy soprano in his father’s church choir.
His voice transitioned to baritone by the time he reached high school and its rich quality earned Warfield several solos with the school choir. He began voice lessons with one of his high school teachers who helped prepare a number for a school assembly. The audience reception of the 16-year old’s performance convinced him that he wanted to pursue a career in music.
Warfield continued his musical studies and entered various scholarship competitions. After graduating high school he was admitted as a voice student to the Eastman School of Music with a full scholarship. In addition to his regular course work he studied foreign language. This would benefit him later in life.
World War II interrupted Warfield’s musical career for a few years. He was drafted into the United States Army after the December, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, before he could complete his studies at Eastman. He was initially assigned to menial tasks in a segregated unit after completing basic training. Later he was able to convince his superiors that his fluency in Italian and German made him better suited for the intelligence unit. He continued his musical studies and performed for the troops when time permitted. In December, 1943 he successfully auditioned for a role in Billy Rose’s Broadway production of Carmen Jones, a role he was unable to fulfill due to his military commitment.
After the war, Warfield continued his studies in music using funds from the GI Bill. 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.
Warfield settled in New York after the tour and began concentrating on enhancing his vocal repertoire. He developed his classical repertoire while also accepting work at popular music venues. He appeared in Marc Blitzstein’s Regina in 1949 and gave his Town Hall debut in 1950. The reviews were very positive. He was being noticed.
Next for Warfield was a three month tour of Australia. While out of the country he learned that MGM was looking to cast the role of Joe in the film remake of the musical, Showboat. After the movie company received the audition recording of the musical’s signature song, “Old Man River,” Warfield was invited to come to Hollywood when the tour was over.
He was asked to record the closing scene version of the song to be dubbed later. This type of session would ordinarily take hours to successfully record, but everything came together perfectly on the first take.
Warfield’s success in Showboat led to another offer from MGM for a film starring Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye. Scheduling conflicts resulted in scrapping the project and Warfield returned to New York. Soon afterwards, he agreed to play the lead in the American National Theatre and Academy’s new production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” The young soprano Leontyne Price was selected to play Bess in the production. During the course of rehearsals the couple became romantically involved and married just before departing for the European leg of the tour.
Unfortunate circumstances in scheduling resulted in the beginning of an extended separation for the couple. Their professional careers took them in completely different directions. Price’s operatic career soared while Warfield found the opportunities for African American male opera singers to be limited. The couple separated in 1958 and divorced in 1972.
Through the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, Warfield continued to maintain a busy performance schedule of recitals, orchestral concerts, and television appearances, making his Carnegie Hall debut in 1965.
In his later years Warfield’s career shifted from singing to offering his voice as narrator on numerous jazz and orchestral works. He won a Grammy Award for his narration of Copeland’s Lincoln Portrait.
Beginning in the mid-70s Warfield began to pursue his aspiration of teaching, balancing that with his performance demands. He started as a music professor at the University of Illinois School of Music in Urbana and later became a visiting professor at Eastern Illinois University and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. While teaching he maintained a demanding touring schedule performing at countless concerts. He also received several honorary degrees from various universities.
At 80, Warfield was still enjoying an active career, but was singing less and less. He died in Chicago at the age of 82 as the result of injuries sustained in a fall.
William Warfield’s legacy was the establishment of the William Warfield Scholarship Fund in 1977. The fund was formed with the purpose of supporting young African American classical singers at the Eastman School of Music