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William Caesar Warfield (22 January 1920 – 26 August 2002), was an American concert bass-baritone singer and actor.
Warfield was born in West Helena, Arkansas and grew up in Rochester, New York, where his father was called to serve as pastor of Mt. Vernon Church. He gave his recital debut in New York's Town Hall on 19 March 1950. He was quickly invited by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to tour Australia and give 35 concerts. In 1952, Warfield performed in Porgy and Bess during a tour of Europe sponsored by the U.S. State Department (he made six separate tours for the US Department of State, more than any other American solo artist.) In this production he played opposite the opera star Leontyne Price, whom he soon married, but the demands of two separate careers left them little time together. They divorced in 1972, but were featured together in a 1963 studio recording of excerpts from Porgy and Bess.
According to a recent exhibit about World War Two, Warfield was the only African American member of the "Ritchie Boys", thousands of soldiers who were trained at Fort Ritchie, Maryland. It was an intelligence center where hundreds of Jewish recruits who fled Nazi Germany for the United States were trained to interrogate their one-time countrymen. According to the exhibit at the Zekelman Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Warfield was brought to the camp because of his strong German skills which he perfected while studying music. Because of segregation, his skills were never put to use.
Warfield was a graduate of the Eastman School of Music. In 1975 he accepted an appointment as Professor of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He later became Chairman of the Voice Department. In 1994, he moved to Northwestern University's School of Music, where he stayed until his death.
He sang the premiere performances of the version for soloist and orchestra of Set I of Aaron Copland's Old American Songs in 1955, and of the version for soloist and piano of Set II of the collection in 1958. (He also recorded both sets of the songs.) His vocal talents were also featured on two recordings of Handel's "Messiah" – a classic, but heavily cut, performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy (released in 1959), and a lesser-known, drastically restructured recording made in 1956, also heavily cut, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein combined the Christmas and Resurrection sections, and ended with the arias and choruses depicting the death of Christ. The Ormandy recording featured the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Bernstein's the Westminster Choir.
Warfield was also accomplished in acting and poetry recitation. He played the character De Lawd in a celebrated Hallmark Hall of Fame television production of The Green Pastures, a role he played twice on live TV (both versions survive as kinescopes ). He appeared in two Hollywood films, including a star-making performance as Joe in MGM's 1951 Technicolor remake of Show Boat. His other film was an overlooked item called "Old Explorers", starring James Whitmore and José Ferrer. In a nod to "Show Boat", Warfield played a cameo role as a tugboat captain. Footage of Warfield in "Show Boat" has been included in several TV shows and/or films, notably That's Entertainment!. Warfield played his Show Boat role in two other productions of the musical – the 1966 Lincoln Center production, and a 1972 production in Vienna. He sang Ol' Man River in three different record albums of the show – the 1951 motion picture soundtrack album on MGM Records, a 1962 studio album featuring Barbara Cook and John Raitt on Columbia Masterworks, and the RCA Victor album made from the Lincoln Center production.
Warfield made an appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour and on a program called TV Recital Hall in 1951, the same year that he made his screen debut in Show Boat. He later appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. In 1961, he appeared as a recital soloist on an episode of the Young People's Concerts, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In March 1984 he was the winner of a Grammy in the "Spoken Word" category for his outstanding narration of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait accompanied by the Eastman Philharmonia Orchestra. And in the 1990s, he narrated a special jazz arrangement of music from "Show Boat", on the PRI program Riverwalk Jazz. In 1999 Warfield joined baritones Robert Sims and Benjamin Matthews in a trio by the name of "Three Generations". Managed by Arthur White, this ensemble toured the United States giving full concerts of African-American spirituals and folk songs until Warfield's death in 2002.
Beginning in 1962, Warfield began to have some trouble with his voice, as he himself admitted in his autobiography. This was only slightly noticeable on the 1962 studio recording of Show Boat. By the time he made the 1966 recording of the Lincoln Center production of the musical, his voice had deepened from merely bass-baritone to a full-fledged bass, and he could not sing the climactic high note on Ol' Man River as easily as he had in the 1951 film version, though he sounded fine on his lower notes. Because of this problem, however, he compensated by learning how to sing even more expressively than he had before.
By 1976, Warfield, although still making various stage and television appearances, was not singing as much as he had in the past. He served as narrator in various orchestral works, such as Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait, and occasionally performed sprechstimme roles in works by Arnold Schoenberg. However, he did sing on occasion during his final years, despite the fact that by then his singing voice was practically gone. In those years, when he sang Ol' Man River, he would not perform it with the original lyrics, but with the altered ones that Paul Robeson used in his recitals beginning in 1938.
Warfield was active in many organizations, After appearing as the featured artist at the 50th year convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. (NANM), he became active with the organization, serving as its President for two terms. He later served on the boards of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) and the Schiller Institute. After joining the Schiller Institute in 1996, he began to collaborate with acclaimed vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee in a project to save the performance tradition of the Negro spiritual. During the final years of his life, from 1999 to 2002, he performed regularly at Schiller Institute biannual conferences, often with Olden Lee as his accompanist, and the two of them travelled the country conducting singing workshops for members of the LaRouche Youth Movement. Warfield was made an honorary member of the Delta Lambda chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia at Ball State University in 1961, and awarded the Fraternity's Charles E. Lutton Man of Music Award in 1976 at its national convention in Evansville, Indiana.
The William Warfield Scholarship Fund continues to support young African American classical singers at the Eastman School of Music. To date the fund has awarded scholarships to over 50 students.