William Warfield
Backstage Bio

William Warfield --

the late great bass-baritone.

The following is a reprint of a Chicago Tribune article written by John von Rhein, Tribune Music Critic (Copyright Chicago Tribune 2000). The photo is also from the Chicago Tribune (photo by Milbert Orlando Brown). Both used here by permission.

William Warfield

William Warfield Is Not The Retiring Type

Like the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein song that has become his signature, William Warfield just keeps rolling along.

The great American bass-baritone who is indelibly associated with Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" (in which he portrayed Porgy) and the musical "Show Boat" (he famously sang "Ol' Man River" in the 1951 MGM film version) may have shifted the bulk of his activities to teaching but says he has no plans to retire from the stage.

"People are usually surprised when I tell them I'm 80. They think I am kidding. Maybe it's because I act and feel like I'm 25 years younger" Warfield says with a robust laugh as he settles into a chair at his modest... apartment.

Our conversation -- peppered with risqué jokes -- is interrupted by phone calls from several interviewers, including a student reporter from his alma mater, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where he was scheduled to give a recital several day later. Warfield makes no secret of the fact that he loves the attention he is getting at an age when most singers have long since retired to the comfort of their rose-colored memories.

"Why should I quit the stage, anyway? Age has nothing to do with anything as long as this old voice holds out and I still enjoy it, I'll never stop singing," he says.

The visitor can't help noticing his hallway, decorated with framed citations, concert posters and newspaper articles -- the merit badges of a distinguished career that began nearly 50 years ago with Warfield's triumphant recital in New York's Town Hall. The critical acclaim set him firmly on the path of international stardom in a field that; at the time he was starting out, offered relatively few opportunities for African-American singers.

These days, his primary audience consists of young voice students he teaches at the Northwestern University School of Music, where he has been music professor for the last decade. His pupils benefit from his vast performing experience and his sheer love of the singing voice. ...

The brisk octogenarian teaches a vocal literature course and gives private lessons to three graduate students. "I love teaching," Warfield says, in that deep, oratorical voice that has put him in high demand as a narrator for such musical works as Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." "I use the course as a practice session for the music the singers are planning to perform in their concerts. I invite the other students to make comments. I'm sometimes amazed at how perceptively they observe each other.

"At the same time," he continues, "I make it clear they are not there to imitate. If they do something that's different from the way I would sing it, I ask them to explain why they are doing it that way. If they have a good reason, fine; I encourage them to do that. I tell them to approach the music as a dramatic situation, to address a stream in a Schumann song as if they were talking to a person. Then I sit back and I am amazed by what comes out. Sharing in a collaboration of performance -- that, to me, is the fun of teaching."

In the course of his long career, Warfield no doubt has been asked to sing "Ol' Man River" more times than lounge singers have been importuned to warble "Misty."

"People always ask me when I began singing that song," he says. "I could never give them an answer until six years ago when I was signing copies of my autobiography ("My Music and My Life," out of print) in Rochester. Someone came up to me and said he was Tony so-and-so who once sang with me in a high school vocal combo. He brought me a program from one of our concerts. Sure enough, there I was, singing Ol' Man River'. I thought, "My God, I've been singing that since I was 16!"

Young Bill, as it turned out, had been so deeply moved by Paul Robeson's rendition of "Ol' Man River" in the 1936 film version of "Show Boat" that he quickly learned the song and made it his own. Robeson was the bass-baritone actor who -- along with Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes and Dorothy Maynor -- broke the color barrier on the concert stage in the 1920s and '30s, making it much easier for artists such as Warfield and his former wife, Leontyne Price, to establish themselves beginning in the '50s.

"Later on, when I was just getting my concert career started, I got to know Paul pretty well," Warfield recalls. "He invited me to come up and talk to him one morning after one of his recitals and I sat there in absolute awe, watching this mountain of a man eating breakfast. He gave me some advice I've never forgotten: Know your craft and don't give up. How right he was!

Still, once can't help but wonder how Warfield keeps from getting stale when singing "Ol' Man River" as many times as he has performed this classic American song. (In mid-interview he delivered a version in flawless German.)

"It's different every time, and that's what keeps it fresh for me," the singer explains. "I adapt it to what is on my mind in the course of the day I'm performing. Sometimes there's a sadness to it, sometimes it's really laid-back and sometimes it's even angry. The most difficult time I had with it was singing it just four days after Martin Luther King's assassination. It was a Sunday matinee in a small Midwestern town. I had to hold back my emotion somewhat to keep from breaking down altogether."

Warfield enjoys telling the story of how his singing of "Ol' Man River" in MGM's 1951 "show Boat" -- starring Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner -- brought tears to the eyes of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer. With the cameras rolling, Warfield delivered a perfect rendition, in an unheard of single take. When he had finished, he didn't know what all the screaming was about. "Everyone on the set was so excited, they called Mayer from his office to come listen to the recording. Afterward, he began weeping and said, "I can't believe it, I can't believe it. Later, someone told me that when Mayer burst into tears it wasn't because of how well I had sung the song, but because of all the money I had saved him.

"I don't think that was true at all, but it was a good line."

Warfield's original goal was to become a music teacher, not a singer. Born in Arkansas and raised in Rochester, he was awarded a scholarship to Eastman and interrupted his music studies to serve four years in the military intelligence division of the Army. "Back then I didn't have too much faith in a career as such. I had always wanted to sing but I didn't know if I wanted to go to New York and suffer." Thanks to the encouragement of Anderson and Robeson, he began focusing on his vocal and dramatic training at Eastman before landing a role in the hit Broadway musical, "Call Me Mister." Later he created the role of Cal in the original Broadway cast of Marc Blitzstein's opera "Regina."

Winning the role of Joe the stevedore in MGM's "Show Boat" was a result of the critical raves Warfield had received from his Town Hall recital debut in 1950. Doors soon opened to him as a concert singer. Opera remained out of reach, however, because at the time he was making a name for himself in concerts, blacks had yet to achieve starring roles in opera. The big breakthrough occurred in 1955 when Anderson made her belated Metropolitan Opera debut. But Warfield had established himself as an oratorio singer by then, and his career was doing so well it did not need the Met's kiss of approval, or any other opera company's.

He remains on friendly terms with Price, who did become one of America's greatest opera stars. The two married in 1952, separated six years later and were divorced in 1972. "The problem was two careers. That's all it was," Warfield told the Tribune in 1985. "We never saw each other, never had a chance for the marriage to settle. Neither of us every remarried. I guess we both figured we had the best." Warfield keeps the RCA boxed set of Prices' collected aria recitals on top of his CD player.

The singer-turned-teacher scoffs at the notion he might soon retire. "Actually, I can't envision myself not doing something," Warfield says, with another hearty laugh. "When I was in my 60s, I made a list of things I still could sing and the things I could not. So I just phased out the stuff that demands a 40-year-old singer. As long as the voice is there and I can still read the score and I still enjoy performing. I'm not gonna quit."

This was an exciting treat for the Compton Heights Concert Band to appear with Mr Warfield. He performed "Lincoln Portrait" at the Band's 2004 Sunday Serenades and Musical Mondays concert series.



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