William C. Warfield: Ol’ Man River

Wiliam Caesar Warfield

William Warfield

William Caesar 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 Educators League’s 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.”

“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.

William Warfield marriage

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.

William C. Warfield

Television beckoned Wiliam Warfield next.  He played “De Lawd” in Marc Connelly’s “Green Pastures.” Then in 1984, he narrated Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Protrait” for which he won a grammy.  In addition to acting, Warfield started teaching in 1975 at the University of Illinois. Later he taught at Northwestern University in Chicago. While doing these jobs, William remained active in concerts and drama readings.  Fellow Arkansan Robert McFerrin would occasionally share the stage with him.  Warfield received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Arkansas in 1972.  He performed in Helena on October 23, 1987 in the Warfield Concerts,  a community concert series.  Warfield remained an active performer until his death on August 25, 2002.

William Caesar Warfield always described himself as “an Arkansas boy from tip to toe.”

I remember watching William Warfield when I was a kid, but I didn’t realize he was from West Helena until a few days ago.  While at work, I met someone who was in town for a class reunion and he asked me about Warfield.  Feeling embarrassed, I admitted I didn’t know much about him or that there was a link to the delta.  He was one of the great American singers and his version of “Ol’ Man River” is one of the all time best. I’m sorry William Warfield.  With the emphasis on blues, country and all the other types of music, I overlooked you.  Your talent should never be overlooked. Thank you for being part of My Delta.

Sources:

Dougan, Michael B. William Caesar Warfield (1920 – 2002). The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, 2013. http://www.encylopediaofarkansas.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.

 

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