Sunday, February 8, 2009

William Warfield

The second in my series on African American musicians in honor of Black History Month, William Caesar Warfield - altho I never heard his middle name uttered or even referred to, is one about whom I have personal knowledge.

The year was 1958. I was studying music at Northern Michigan University when Mr. Warfield appeared in concert. His rich bass-baritone voice just filled the concert hall, and afterwards all of us music majors were invited to go backstage and meet him at a private reception.

I was most familiar with his magnificent rendering of "Ol' Man River" in the 1951 movie version of "Show Boat", and was a little disappointed to see that it was not listed in the program. [Do I still have the program? No, I do not. If I'd realized that, 50-some years later, I'd be writing about him in my blog, I would have kept it!] And so, I do not remember whatall he actually sang. Certainly there would have been a German lieder or two.

He was fluent in German. As a matter of fact, he served as an Army Intelligence Officer during World War II. In his autobiography he wrote, "There has never been a time like Dec. 7, 1941, in the history of our country -- there certainly has never been anything like it since.* In the space of an hour on that Sunday afternoon, an entire nation of millions of Americans were united in a single purpose. And it was a unity of purpose that was sustained over the next three and a half years. Families were broken up, educations were interrupted, hundreds of thousands of people left home, many of them never to return. But somehow the personal problems all merged into a larger mission, with a feeling for God, flag, and country that is probably beyond the ken of people who weren't there. If it can't be comprehended emotionally, it can't be comprehended at all."

[*William Warfield died in 2002. His autobiography was written before that, obviously, and I don't know what remarks, references, or changes he might have made in regard to September 11th. What's most important to note here is his very last sentence, "If it can't be comprehended emotionally .. .."

He was a man of deep emotions. He often cried while rehearsing a song, found the level of emotion he could show during the performance without 'tearing up' himself, and then would go on to give a concert that had - at the end - at least half the audience reaching for additional handkerchiefs.]

He was equally at home with both the German lieder and the Negro spiritual, and was still performing until just before his last hospitalization. "When I reached 60 and was professor of music at the University of Illinois," he said in a personal interview, "I sort of half-retired from singing, thinking maybe the time had come for me to give it up completely and just do masterclasses. One night, lying in bed, something came over me that I still can't quite describe. I guess it must have been a message from God. What I heard was this, 'I gave you that voice. I'll tell you when to quit.' I thought I'd better listen. And you know something? Singing still continues to fill my life with joy. If it didn't, I wouldn't be doing it."

There's a lot of information (Isn't that nice?) that you can 'google' for yourself on him. His ability to project his feelings onto readings of both poetry and prose made him a highly soft-after guest and featured speaker.

In 1984, he won a Grammy Award in the 'Best Spoken Word or Non-musical category' for his narration of Copland: A Lincoln Portrait. Interestingly enough, Carl Sandburg had won a Grammy Award just a quarter century prior (Best Performance - Documentary or Spoken Word, other than comedy) for his reading of A Lincoln Portrait.

But I have digressed to the point of boring you all silly, I'm sure. Let's get back to when I actually met Mr. Warfield. As I said, his concert was wonderful - not what I expected, but still! - and none of us could wait to get backstage to meet him in person.

Our backstage in person meetings had to be delayed, however, because the audience simply would not let him go without several encores, the very last of which was "Ol' Man River". I'm getting goose bumps even now just thinking about that encore!

So, how was he? What was he like? I had always pictured in my mind a very large man. Would almost have to be, with such a huge voice, right? Wrong. I mean, he wasn't small but not enormous, either! About my height, probably. Very dark. Personable. Friendly, even.

[I wish I could tell you that you were soon to be treated to his singing "Ol' Man River" with scenes from the movie "Show Boat" showing in the background, but that video has since been removed from YouTube. I saved it, too, but it's gone. I'm sorry.]

However, I do have a couple of "goodies" for you. This first one is from a trailer of the 1951 movie. Pay attention to both the audio and video here. You will actually see William Warfield singing this song from the movie.

Warfield enjoyed telling the story of how his singing of "Ol' Man River" in MGM's 1951 "Show Boat" brought tears to the eyes of movie 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 was so excited," Warfield said, "they called Mayer from his office to come listen to the recording." Afterward Mayer began weeping and repeatedly said, "I can't believe it. I can't believe it." "Later," Warfield continued, "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."

Now, this last video that I'm going to share with you does not picture William Warfield singing "Old Man River." It shows Paul Robeson. However, it is William Warfield's voice. Just close your eyes, listen, and be transported - as I was.

Thank you, Trojanman21c, for putting this out there for all of us to enjoy!

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