William Warfield (1994)

WW: Warfeld, William
RFs: Freeman, Robert
Duration: 13 minutes
Date: 1994


Biographical note: William Warfield (1920-2002) earned a Bachelor of Music degree at Eastman in 1942, and returned at the close of World War II for a period of graduate studies in 1947, prior to embarking upon a career in stage and concert performance in which he gained high critical acclaim and strong international reputation as a concert baritone, film and television actor, and narrator. He then distinguished himself as a teacher of voice and professor of music at the University of Illinois. In recognition of his notably outstanding career, the University of Rochester awarded him an honorary doctor of Music degree at Commencement in 1988. This interview provides a condensed overview of Mr. Warfield's career, with particular emphasis on his late-career honors and his contributions to the Eastman School of Music as an alumnus. A second interview conducted with Mr. Warfield for the Living History Project provides a detailed discussion of his entire singing career.

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Robert Freeman:[1] It's my honor to welcome to the recording studios of the Eastman School William Warfield, one of Eastman's most distinguished graduates. A man, in whose career as a singer all over the world, this institution takes great pride. Bill, welcome back to Eastman.

William Warfield: Thank you. It's always good to get back here, not only because of the Eastman, but because my family's still here, too. It gives me a double opportunity.

RF: Were you born in Rochester?

WW: No, actually, I was born in Arkansas.[2] As a matter of fact, I went back there just about four years ago to where I was born, West Helena, Arkansas, and did a concert on what they call the Warfield Series, which has nothing to do with me.[3] There was some eccentric man that used to hide his money in mattresses, and cupboards, and things. He obviously amassed a whole gang of money. He—they—they actually established a Warfield Series in his name. It's paid for by the interest from his estate. They give free concerts. I went to see The Warfield Series in West Helena, Arkansas.

RF: Fantastic, back to your roots.

WW: Mm-hmm.

RF: When did your family move to Rochester?

WW: My family moved to Rochester just about—when I was about 4 years old. I had all of my education here. Oh, I remember as early as 10 or 11 years old, I knew about the Eastman. As a matter of fact, one of the first things that got me interested was the—Paderewski[4] was playing a concert here, and they used to have this silhouette thing of him as an advertisement. I got fascinated with that and decided, "Oh, maybe that's what I wanted to be," a pianist. As a matter of fact, you know that's when I started.

RF: It's still a pretty good, pianist. Yeah.

WW: I started out studying piano at nine years old.

RF: Who persuaded you that voice was really your forte?

WW: When I was in high school, which was Washington High School, I—actually, it was Washington Junior High School,[5] and then it became a senior high school. They added years on to it to make it to 12th grade. I was in the music class of two people, Clarence Bilhorn[6] and Elsa Miller.[7] She was the voice person, and Clarence Bill Horn was the choral director. I got started by just starting in the music classes. I didn't even know that Miss Miller had set me up to sing for Mr. Spouse,[8] who was the director of music of the public schools at that time. He came in visiting every so often.

 One day, he was there, and she said, "Sing this, Warfield. You sing that song." I sang a few things out of whatever we were singing. I don't probably—a hymn or somethin.' They asked me to come up after class and wait for a minute. He said, "Young man, you've got a very good voice. You ought to be studying," he says. "Miss Miller can give you voice lessons after school." That's when I started studyin' voice. One thing lead to the other, and entrance into a competition at the local level, then to the regional area, and then in 1938, I went to the Music Educators National Convention in Saint Louis, MO and won a scholarship. Of course, I wanted to come here. I did, and that started it all off.[9]

RF: When did you start here as a freshman?

WW: '38. 1938.

RF: Who'd you study voice with?

WW: I studied voice with Arthur Kraft.[10] Uncle Arthur, we all called him. It's very ironic, for instance, that we all used to call him Uncle Arthur. I don't know how it started with me, but do you know I'm called Uncle Bill now— [laughter]

RF: No, I don't.

WW: - at school? I don't know when that all started.

RF: When you stepped down from your post as professor of voice and chairman at the University of Illinois, I had the honor of being part of the audience.[11]

WW: Yes, I remember. Yeah.

RF: The hall at the Krannert Center was just packed—[12]

WW: Yeah.

RF: - with people from all over the United States with tributes to you of all kinds. Everybody, of course, was talking about Uncle Bill.

WW: Yeah. [Laughter]

RF: Anyway, you graduated from Eastman. The war was going on.

WW: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I came home and graduated in my uniform. As a matter of fact, years later, just recently, when I received my honorary doctorate, I thanked the president for finally graduating in full regalia.[13] [Laughter]

RF: I remember.

WW: I was in my—

RF: You had on your army things.

WW: G.I. They wanted to be proud of the people that were in the service. I was very disappointed, but I finally caught up with it.

RF: When you graduated from Eastman, did you go directly to New York? When did your first big break come?

WW: No. As a matter of fact, I was in New York to audition for Billy Rose's production of—it was Carmen Jones, I think it was.[14]  They wanted me to do Husky Miller, but I was in the service.[15] I couldn't get out of the service to do that, even though—I mean, he tried to get me put on what you call special service. They said, "Oh, no. That would never work, take him out of—" I was in military intelligence down in Camp Ritchie, Maryland, where is the sight of where the underground Pentagon is, out there near where the president goes for vacation.[16] Then, I came back to the Eastman. I was here at the Eastman. Someone called me from New York and wanted me to come down and audition for a role that was Call Me Mister.[17] It was a Broadway musical with skits and things. It had people like Buddy Hackett,[18] Bobby Fosse,[19] Carl Reiner.[20] We all got our, shall we say, our sea legs.

RF: Great cast. Yeah.

WW: Yeah. I came back afterwards and spoke to Dr. Hanson.[21] He—I said, "What do you think?" He says, "Well," he says, "You can always finish your master's degree." I was in master's program after the service. "Give it a try and see what happens." I went down and went on tour for a year on that. At that time, I decided, "Well, when I get back from this, I'll just stick around a little while and see if a career will develop." It did. There you have it.

RF: The rest is history.

WW: Yeah.

RF: When was Show Boat?

WW: Show Boat[22] I made right after my debut, which was 1950.[23] As a matter of fact, I was in Australia. I was touring for the Australia Broadcasting Commission.[24] The lady who was, what you would say, a talent scout for the ABC was at my debut recital. She wired the next day, "Cable, you must bring this man out cuz this is the best thing I've heard in years." Well, to make a long story short, I went out there. While out there reading in a column, that—they still had not found the person they wanted for Show Boat. My manager went back home, sent all kinds of pictures to Dore Schary.[25] I went to the ABC and went in the studio with an engineer. Sat down at the piano, recorded my singing "Ol' Man River" to my own accompaniment. About a week later, I had a wire sayin' I'd been hired to do Joe in Show Boat.

RF: Fantastic.

WW: Yeah.

RF: People still want you to sing "Ol' Man River" everywhere I am with you.[26]

WW: Yes. As a matter of fact, do you know I just—

RF: It's the only way you can make people happy is by singing "Ol' Man River."

WW: Do you know I actually was in a production of that just recently at the Spring Field Muni Opera. I did nine performances of—back on the road, again, now that I'm retired from teaching. I'm back singing. [Laughter]

RF: [Laughter] You're back on the road.

WW: Back on the road. They broke some sort of an attendance record for that.

RF: Fantastic. Well, you've had a distinguished career teaching at the University of Illinois. I know that you became, a couple of years ago, a member of, what is it? The Society of Abraham Lincoln?

WW: Oh, yeah. The Lincoln Society.[27] That's from the state of New York—

RF: Yeah.

WW: - by the governor.

RF: Of Illinois?

WW: Illinois, yeah.

RF: Right.

WW: Mm-hmm. A fellow, they call it. That's quite a high honor for the state.

RF: I know.

WW: Yeah. I was very, very pleased with that. As a matter of fact, I never really think too much about honors and things, but every once in a while, something happens to me. I—it just comes right out at me.

RF: Sure. That's the best way.

WW: Right out of the sky. I'm flabbergasted.

RF: Bill, for the last 15, 16 years, something like that, you have been terrifically helpful at the Eastman school with something called the William Warfield Fund for young Black singers.[28]

WW: Mm-hmm.

RF: We have had some terrific young people who have come through that program. You've come here every year, at least once, to take part in dinners, and luncheons, and to kind of—

WW: Oh, yes.

RF: - encourage the people in Rochester who have given money to that fund.

WW: Yes. I am so proud of the youngsters that have come out of that. I've gotten to know them all, each of the years that they had it. In fact, I just met the young lady upstairs that received it.

RF: For this year?

WW: Yeah, for this year.

RF: There have been some terrific talents among those young people.

WW: Yes, I know. I've heard several of 'em. I—I know about all of 'em. Many of 'em, what, about ten of 'em are there?

RF: By this time, yeah.

WW: Yeah.

RF: I would think.

WW: Then, I've heard quite a few of 'em sing.

RF: Well, they are all going to be on the tape that you and I are making part of.

WW: Well, okay. [Laughter]

RF: Somewhere down the track, you're going to get several copies of this, so you'll have a formal record of what each one sounds like in 1991 and what each one of them is doing in the professional world of music.

WW: Yes. I know some of them been Europe—been to Europe, and back, and doing several things.

RF: Yep. Doin' all kinds of interesting things.

WW: Very proud of 'em.

RF: Well, that would not have been possible without your help and encouragement that our students look to you as a kind of terrifically, illustrious role model of what's possible with talent, and dedication, and hard work. You certainly have been that for all of us.

WW: Well, thank you very much. I don't want you to leave yourself out. Remember, I have come. All those Christmas times that you played the piano for me to sing. [Laughter]

RF: I'm always ready to play the piano for you. You know that.

WW: [Laughter] That was really great.

RF: We had some good times so far. We'll have others, too.

WW: Oh, I'm sure.

RF: I'm very happy, too, that you were willing to act as the narrator for that PBS production that we did of New Morning for the World.[29]

WW: Yes.

RF: That now airs all over the country every year.

WW: I understand, every year.

RF: Very proud of that. Yep.

WW: I've got a copy of it at home, which every once in a while, I play for people. I have friends call me from Atlanta, from—they say, "Oh. The New Morning for the World is on tonight. It's playing." I say, "Well, it'll probably play here next week."

RF: Bill, we honor you as one of the school's most distinguished graduates, a man who, still after his retirement, is on the trail, on the road doing it.

WW: Yeah.

RF: Not only making wonderful art and great music, but also acting as an ideal role model for young musicians who'll come along in the future. How do you see opportunities for young, black musicians in the 1990s and in the century ahead? Is it getting a little easier? We still have a lot ahead of us, I think.

WW: It is getting—it is easier from the standpoint of the opportunities open irregardless of whether you're black and white. Other than that, it's not getting any easier because, as you know and I know, the talent that is coming up out there, it is making it much more highly compatible. For instance, now a-days, you can get into opera, certainly, as a black. That would not be any drawback to you. When you get out there now, you are competing with people that are so good.

 I do competitions, and listen to auditions, and things, and the youngsters now, and especially in the field of opera, the tight voice, the musicianship of ‘em, their all around training and all of—that is the biggest competition now with these state of preparation is so complete with these youngsters that they—sometimes they put me to shame. As a matter of fact, one time, I was sitting in my studio. A kid was playing something. I said, "Wait a minute. Wasn't that a wrong note?" I went there, and I had been makin' a mistake all those years. He was absolutely right. The next time I criticize, I'll go away from the one, look at the music first.

RF: Look at the music. [Laughter]

WW: [Laughter] Yeah. They are prepared. It's highly competitive, highly competitive.

RF: I say to all of the young musicians who come through the Eastman School that just as you say, that' it's a very competitive world out there, but that it's a terrible mistake to think of yourself as 1 of 100 singers of 1 of 200 oboists, or 1 of 300 pianists, that the way to succeed in the word as an artist is to be yourself.

WW: That's right.

RF: Make sure that you're true to your own talent, and to your own idea of what sound should be, and to your own notion of how you should present yourself to the public.

WW: Yeah.

RF: That if each of us is an individual, the chances for us succeeding, I think are better. You have always followed your own highest destiny. You act as the result of that as a kind of beacon for all of us to follow. I am deeply grateful to you for joining me in the studio this afternoon and for everything that you've done, not only for Eastman and for young singers, but for music in America.

WW: Well, thank you very much.

[1] Bob Freeman is a musicologist and pianist. He directed the Eastman School of Music from 1972 to 1996. Under his stewardship, the Eastman campus added the Eastman Living Center and refurbished Sibley Library. He commissioned Eastman faculty member Joseph Schwantner's critically acclaimed composition, New Morning for the World (1983), discussed later in this interview. Following his successful tenure at Eastman, Freeman accepted teaching and administrative roles at the New England Conservatory and later, the University of Texas-Austin ("Robert Freeman: Biography." Eastman School of Music. 1999-2015. http://www.esm.rochester.edu/

[2] Mr. Warfield was born in West Helena, Arkansas, in 1920, the oldest of five children ("William Warfield, 82, Dies; Baritone Known for ‘Porgy.'" Allan Kozinn. New York Times 27 August 2002. Web. 27 January 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/

[3] The Warfield Concert Series, funded by a trust fund founded by the late Samuel Drake Warfield, of West Helena, continues today. It provides free concerts to the public. Much of the money for the concert series came from the sale of Mr. Samuel Warfield's farm land after his death ("History." Web. 27 January 2017. http://www.warfieldconcerts.com/

[4] Pianist Ignace Paderewski performed twice at Eastman Theatre—first on November 15, 1922, and again on February 5, 1932 (Vincent A. Lenti. For the Enrichment of Community Life: George Eastman and the Eastman School of Music. Rochester: Meliora Press, 2004. 256. Print).

[5] Washington Junior High School opened on Clifford Avenue in 1915. It was the first junior high school to open in Rochester (A History of the Public Schools of Rochester, New York: 1813-1935. pp. 20, 90. Prepared in the Offices of the Board of Education. Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County. Historic Monograph Collection. Web. 27 January 2017. http://www.libraryweb.org/~digitized/

[6] Clarence P. Bilhorn and his wife, Grace M. Bilhorn, resided at 426 Post Avenue (Rochester City Directory (RCD) 1935. 237. Web. Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County. City Directory Collection. http://www3.libraryweb.org/

[7] Elsa S. Miller resided at 20 Scio Street (Rochester City Directory (RCD) 1935. 573. Web. Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County. City Directory Collection. http://www3.libraryweb.org/

[8] Alf Spouse and his wife Lillian M. Spouse resided at 401 Elmodorf Avenue (RCD, 1935. 725).

[9] As the winner of the national competition, Warfield earned a scholarship to any music school in America ("William Warfield Biography." The William Warfield Scholarship Fund. Web. 1 February 2017. http://www.williamwarfield.org/

[10] Professor of voice, ESM, 1936 to 1960. He achieved critical acclaim as a Chicago-based concert tenor prior to coming to ESM ("Arthur Kraft Steadily Gaining Favor." Musical Courier 21 June 1917. 31. Web. Google Books; Lenti, Serving 301).

[11] Mr. Warfield taught at the University of Illinois from 1975 to 1994, when he joined the faculty at Northwestern University ("William Warfield, 82, Dies; Baritone Known for ‘Porgy."' Allan Kozinn. New York Times 27 August 2002. Web. 1 February 2017).

[12] Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana. Illinois alumnus Herman Krannert and his wife Ellnora donated significant funding for the then $21 million Center, which opened in 1969. It continues to house the UIUC arts programs, and serves as the primary performance venue for artists who visit campus ("Our Story." University of Illinois Board of Trustees. 2017. Web. 1 February 2017. https://krannertcenter.com/

[13] Warfield served four years in the military after completing his undergraduate degree in 1942. He then reenrolled at ESM, and received a Masters of Music degree in 1946. Warfield was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree by the University of Rochester in 1988 ("Honorary Degree Recipients 1980-1989." Office of the Provost. University of Rochester. 1996-2016. Web. 1 February 2017. http://www.rochester.edu/provost/
; "William Warfield Biography." The William Warfield Scholarship Fund. Web. 1 February 2017. http://www.williamwarfield.org/
; "William Warfield BM 42." 26 January 2000. Web. 1 February 2017. https://www.esm.rochester.edu/

[14] Billy Rose had a varied and colorful career as a Broadway producer, songwriter, nightclub owner, and entertainment mogul. Rose's productions were extremely popular, appearing at the New York and San Francisco World's Fair, among other venues. These massive productions, including Jumbo, featured a variety of acts that included dancers, athletes, and vaudeville style routines. On Broadway, Rose produced a number of features, including the Oscar Hammerstein II adaptation of Carmen, Carmen Jones. A number of Broadway and popular music hits are credited to Rose (though his authorship is sometimes disputed) including "It's Only a Paper Moon" and "Would You Like to Take a Walk?" ("Billy Rose." Jason Ankeny. All Music. 2017. Web. 1 February 2017. http://www.allmusic.com/
; "Billy Rose." Songwriters Hall of Fame. 2002-2017. Web. 1 February 2017. http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/

[15] Husky Miller, the baritone role in Carmen Jones, is a boxer who Carmen falls for after initially falling in love with Joe, a soldier ("Carmen Jones." Stage Agent. Web. 1 February 2017. http://stageagent.com/

[16] Camp Ritchie served as a training ground for elite intelligence officers during World War II. Recruits assigned to Camp Ritchie often spoke German, and worked on analyzing the inner workings of opposition forces as well as clandestine communication methods. Camp Ritchie closed in 1997 ("A Camp Ritchie Soldier's Encounter with a Top Nazi at the End of WW II." Michael E. Ruane. Washington Post 30 June 2012. Web. 1 February 2017).

[17] Call Me Mister, a musical about soldiers returning to America after World War II, debuted on Broadway on April 18, 1946, setting off a run of 734 shows that ended on January 10, 1948. The musical included an African American character originally played by Lawrence Winters ("Call Me Mister." William Ruhlmann. AllMusic. 2017. Web. 3 February 2017. http://www.allmusic.com/

[18] Hackett performed in films, television, and on Broadway during a stand-up comedy career that lasted over fifty years. He first gained notice on Broadway for his role in Sidney Kingsley's Lunatics and Lovers (1954). Television and film were his forte; his credits ranged from the film Walking my Baby Back Home (1953) to Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989) ("Comedian Buddy Hackett Dead at 78." Francie Grace. 1 July 2003. CBS News. Web. 1 February 2017. http://www.cbsnews.com/

[19] Bob Fosse, the Broadway and film choreographer and director of such hits as the Broadway staple Damn Yankees, his Tony Award winning debut The Pajama Game (1954) and Chicago (1975). His notable film credits include the Oscar winning film Cabaret (1972). Fosse was the first individual to win at least one Oscar, Tony, and Emmy Award ("Bob Fosse." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 2000. St. James Press. rpt. Broadway: The American Musical. PBS.org. Web. 1 February 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/

[20] Comedian, film director and producer Carl Reiner, known for his collaborations with Mel Brooks. Mr. Reiner has published numerous books, and directed the Steve Martin feature The Jerk, among other films. He wrote and acted in The Dick Van Dyke Show ("Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner on Pushing 100, Charming the FBI, and Falling in Love Again." Katherine Brodsky. The Guardian 31 May 2016. Web. 1 February 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/
; "A Shtick with a Thousand Lives." Ari Karpel. New York Times 12 November 2009. Web. 1 February 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/

[21] Howard Hanson, Pulitzer Prize winning composer and director of ESM, 1924-1964.

[22] Show Boat, a Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II musical, debuted on Broadway in December 1927. The popular musical featured both black and white actors, and a plot that addressed racial issues in a serious manner, a rarity for Broadway musicals of its time. Warfield played Joe, a stevedore, in the 1951 MGM film Show Boat ("Biography for Joe (Character)." IMDB. 1990-2017. Web. 3 February 2017. http://www.imdb.com/
; "Show Boat." Broadway: The American Musical. PBS.org. Web. 3 February 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/

[23] Warfield debuted at New York's Town Hall March 19, 1950. A March 24, 1975 concert a Carnegie Hall was held to celebrate the anniversary of his debut ("William Warfield Biography." The William Warfield Scholarship Fund. Web. 1 February 2017. http://www.williamwarfield.org/

[24] Warfield's tour with the Australian Broadcasting Company consisted of 35 performances from June to September of 1950 (ibid).

[25] Isadore Schary first worked in Hollywood as an editor, soon becoming a scriptwriter. His work on such films as Boys Town (1938), for which he won an Oscar, and Lassie Come Home (1943), established him as a leading writer for MGM and then RKO. Schary gradually lost his hit making powers. He left Hollywood to become a producer, director, and playwright who found success on Broadway ("Dore Schary. Biography." Jack Backstreet. IMDB. 1990-2017. Web. 3 February 2017. http://www.imdb.com/

[26] Of his many performances of "Ol' Man River," the most well-known song from Show Boat, Warfield said, "It's different every time, and that's what keeps it fresh for me . . . . I adapt it to what is on my mind in the course of the day I'm performing . . . . The most difficult time I had with it was singing it just four days after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'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" ("William Warfield, 82, Dies; Baritone Known for ‘Porgy.'" Allan Kozinn. New York Times 27 August 2002. Web. 3 February 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/

[27] Not identified.

[28] Mr. Warfield founded the William Warfield Scholarship Fund in 1977, and it continues to support black singers at ESM today. To date, over 35 students have benefited from the Warfield Scholarship Fund. The 2017 recipient, mezzo-soprano Alicia Rosser, performed at a benefit concert in support of the fund at Kilbourn Hall on January 8, 2017 ("William Warfield-A Legacy in Music: A Benefit Concert for the William Warfield Scholarship Fund." University of Rochester. 1999-2017. Web. 3 February 2017. http://eastmantheatre.org/

[29] New Morning for the World (Daybreak of Freedom), composed by then ESM faculty member Joseph Schwantner. The Eastman Philharmonia premiered New Morning of the World on January 15, 1983, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The piece, commissioned by ESM, includes spoken word selections originally narrated by Willie Stargell, a former All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1983, The Eastman Philharmonia recorded the composition, accompanied by Stargell, along with Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, narrated by Warfield, and ESM graduate and Pulitzer Prize winner George Walker's An Eastman Overture. The resulting album was released by Mercury Records in 1983. Schwantner, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, taught at ESM from 1970 until 2001 ("Composer Joseph Schwantner Will Be in Residence at the Eastman School." University of Rochester press release, December 5, 2007. Web. 12 September 2016. http://www.esm.rochester.edu/
; "New Morning for the World: A Landmark Commission by the Eastman School of Music." Paul J. Burgett. Web. 3 February 2017. https://www.esm.rochester.edu/