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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 265

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This is the grave of William Warfield.

Born in 1920 in West Helena, Arkansas, he grew up in Rochester, New York, when his father, a Baptist minister, took over a congregation there. He became locally known for his amazing bass voice and he graduated from the Eastman School of Music. He studied music and learned German, which meant that during World War II, he was the only African-American assigned to Fort Ritchie’s project of training Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to interrogate Nazi prisoners. He had learned nearly perfect German in his musical training, but because of racism and segregation, he was never really used at Fort Ritchie.

After the war, Warfield’s musical career advanced fairly quickly. He made his Broadway debut in 1949 in Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina. He gave his first big-time New York recital in 1950 at Town Hall and then did a huge Australian tour. He was cast as Joe in the 1951 film Show Boat, making him a big star. The State Department’s Cold War cultural programs included lots of opportunities for American cultural figures, but especially African-Americans, as the government wanted to paper over how blacks were treated at home by making a big deal of them abroad. So in 1952, he did a Porgy and Bess tour across Europe sponsored by the State Department. He did several of these tours over the years. On the tour, he starred opposite the equally influential Leontyne Price. They married, but separated in 1958 and divorced in 1972. He was the vocalist for Aaron Copland’s 1955 recording Old American Songs and its follow-up in 1958. He recorded all the time in the 1950s and 1960s, including well-known versions of Handel, one of which was conducted by Leonard Bernstein. His voice deepened after 1962, making it a full bass. This was not great actually, as he could no longer sing many high notes for his classic roles. But he remained a hugely popular and influential figure. He started moving away from performing and toward teaching, although he never fully left performance. He became a music professor at the University of Illinois in 1975 and stayed there until 1994, when he moved to Northwestern. He was still a professor there at his death.

As I stated when I profiled Paul Robeson, I am not a big fan of this style of operatic singing. But a lot of people love it. Let’s listen to some Warfield recordings:

William Warfield died in 2002 after he broke his neck in a fall. He is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York.

If you would like to see this series include more African-American stage stars, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I can’t fine any grave information on Leontyne Price, but I am trying to uncover something. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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