Singer. Best remembered as the bass-baritone who gave an unmatched rendition of "Ol' Man River" in MGM's 1951 film production of "Showboat." In the course of a career that has spanned over five decades, his incomparable voice and charismatic personality wowed the stages of six continents and earned him the title of "America's Musical Ambassador." Born in West Helena, Arkansas, his father was a minister and a sharecropper. His singing ability was recognized at an early age and he attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he received his Bachelor of Music in 1942. After a tour in the US Army during World War II, he returned to Eastman in 1946 to pursue graduate training. On March 19, 1950 he gave his recital debut at New York City's Town Hall and was quickly invited by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to tour Australia and give 35 concerts. In 1951 he sang 'Joe' in "Showboat" in New York City and from 1952-1953 he toured Europe as 'Porgy' in "Porgy and Bess," sponsored by the US State Department, one of his six separate tours for the State Department, more than any other American solo artist. In this production he played opposite the opera star Leontyne Price, whom he soon married, but the demands of two separate careers left them little time together and they ended up divorcing in 1972. He continued to sing in musicals and operas in the US and abroad, and also made concert tours of Africa and Middle East (1956), Europe (with the Philadelphia Orchestra, 1956), and Asia (1958). In 1955 he sang the premiere performances of the version for soloist and orchestra of Set I of Aaron Copland's "Old American Songs" and of the version for soloist and piano of Set II of the collection in 1958. His vocal talents were also featured on two recordings of Handel's "Messiah," a classic, but heavily cut, performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy (released in 1959), and a lesser-known, drastically restructured recording made in 1956, also heavily cut, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Warfield was also accomplished in acting and poetry recitation. As an actor, he played the character 'De Lawd' in a celebrated Hallmark Hall of Fame television production of "The Green Pastures" (1957), a role he played twice on live television. Other than "Show Boat," he appeared in the film "Old Explorers," that starred James Whitmore and Jose Ferrer, in where he played a cameo role as a tugboat captain. He played his "Show Boat" role in two other productions of the musical, the 1966 Lincoln Center production, and a 1972 production in Vienna. He sang "Ol' Man River" in three different record albums of the show, the 1951 motion picture soundtrack album on MGM Records, a 1962 studio album featuring Barbara Cook and John Raitt on Columbia Masterworks, and the RCA Victor album made from the Lincoln Center production. In 1975 he was appointed a Professor of Music at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, later becoming Chairman of its Voice Department. By 1976, although still making various stage and television appearances, he was not singing as much as he had in the past. In March 1984 he was the winner of a Grammy in the Spoken Word category for his outstanding narration of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," accompanied by the Eastman Philharmonia Orchestra. The same year, he was elected as President of the National Association of Negro Musicians, a post he held until 1990. In September 1991 he published his autobiography, "My Music & My Life" with Alton Miller. He joined the Board of the Schiller Institute in 1996 where he was engaged in the efforts of the Schiller Institute to revive a movement for a National Conservatory of Music, first pioneered at the beginning of the century by Antonin Dvorak, and also worked extensively in voice-training master classes. From 1999 to 2002, he performed regularly at Schiller Institute biannual conferences and conducted singing workshops across the US for members of the LaRouche Youth Movement. He died from injuries received from a fall at the age of 82. The William Warfield Scholarship Fund, named in his honor, continues to support young African American classical singers at the Eastman School of Music.
Bio by: William Bjornstad