William Warfield

b. 22 January 1920, West Helena, Arkansas, USA, d. 25 August 2002, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Raised in Rochester, New York, as a child Warfield studied singing extensively, including earning a degree at Eastman College of Music. After serving in military intelligence in World War II (he was fluent in German) he secured a role in a touring company of Call Me Mister, which had premiered on Broadway in 1946. Also in the road company were showbusiness hopefuls Buddy Hackett, Carl Reiner and Bob Fosse. Warfield worked thereafter in musical shows, occasionally in films and on television, and in opera, but chiefly he performed on the concert platform. His fluid and resonant baritone was adaptable to many genres and he became an accomplished singer of gospel music and especially of German lieder. Warfield’s concert recital debut came in 1950 at New York’s Town Hall. This was followed by a highly successful tour of Australia, after which he went to Hollywood for Jerome Kern’s Show Boat (1951), memorably singing ‘Ol’ Man River’. In 1952 he starred as Porgy in a State Department-sponsored touring version of Porgy And Bess that included 142 performances in London. Starring opposite him was opera singer Leontyne Price, whom he married. On television he appeared as De Lawd in a production of Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures (1957 and 1959).

Recipient of numerous awards and honours, Warfield won a Grammy award in the Spoken Word category for his contribution as narrator to Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (1984). Among his last appearances were a recital in 1995 at Carnegie Hall in support of the Duke Ellington Cancer Center, and in 1999 a national tour performing African-American Folk Songs with fellow baritones Benjamin Matthews and Robert Sims. Warfield was also deeply involved in education, notably at the Schiller Institute where he worked on the National Conservatory of Music Movement.

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