William C. Warfield was a well known bass-baritone concert artist, who had a long career that included stage, song and film. William was born January 22, 1920 to Robert Warfield and Bertha McCamery in West Helena, Arkansas. He only spent a few short years in Arkansas though. His family moved first to St. Joseph, Missouri and then to Rochester, New York. It was there that Robert Warfield became a Baptist minister.
After winning the National Music Educator’s League singing competition in 1938, William entered the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. However, World War II would interfere with his studies. He was drafted into the army in 1942, but still was able to earn his degree from Eastman. Because of his college education, William was transferred to military intelligence and avoided combat.
In 1946, William Warfield was hired as the lead in a touring company performing Harold Rome’s musical “Call Me Mister.” After the show’s run, he found work singing and playing piano in clubs. This gave him his next break to stardom. After seeing William perform in Toronto, Walter Carr decided to finance Warfield’s Town Hall debut in New York City on March 19, 1950. Warfield impressed critics so much that the tour was extended to Australia. This was followed by his film debut in a remake of “Showboat” in which he sang “Ol Man River” for the first time commercially. Paul Robeson had sang that song in the 1930s version of “Showboat.”
Ol’ Man River by William Warfield in “Showboat”
“Porgy and Bess” was his next theatrical endeavor. It was in that play where he met Leontyne Price who he married in 1952. She was from Laurel, Mississippi and a well known opera singer.
Their marriage unfortunately didn’t last and they divorced in 1972. The couple had actually been separated since 1958 though. William continued performing for a number of years after his divorce. He also completed several tours throughout Europe and America. Unfortunately his voice began to decline during these years.
William Warfield singing “It ain’t necessarily so”
On March 24, 1975, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Warfield’s Town Hall debut was celebrated at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In 1984, he won a Grammy Award in the spoken word category for his narration of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” Throughout these years Warfield continued to promote singing and work toward getting more African Americans into classical music. He passed away on August 6, 2002 in Chicago. He is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, Monroe County, New York. The William Warfield Scholarship Fund, named in his honor, supports young African American classical singers at the Eastman School of Music.
Dougan, Michael B. William Chester Warfield (1920-2002) The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, 2013. http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net
Southern Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Warfield, William, with Alton Miller. William Warfield: My Music & My Life Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing Inc. 1991.