Grammy-winning bass baritone
This article was corrected on Aug. 27, 2002.
William Warfield, Grammy-winning bass baritone memorable for his rendition of “Ol’ Man River” in the 1951 movie version of “Show Boat” and his lead role in stage versions of “Porgy and Bess,” died Sunday Aug. 27 at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago from complications of a broken neck after falling in late July. He was 82.
Arkansas native’s family moved to Rochester, N.Y., and in the late 1930s he won first prize in the National Music Educators League Competition, which earned him a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music, interrupting his studies for service as an Army intelligence officer during World War II. Aiming to be a music teacher because he expected race discrimination, he was encouraged by stars Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson to focus on the stage, first appearing in a production of Marc Blitzstein’s Broadway opera “Regina” and in several musicals including a touring production of “Call Me Mister.”
His breakthrough came in 1950when he made his recital debut at New York’s Town Hall. That led to a tour of Australia and a contract with MGM to play Joe in the remake of “Showboat.”
In 1952 he toured with “Porgy and Bess” in the U.S. and Europe, and married his co-star, Leontyne Price (they separated six years later divorced in 1972 but continued to collaborate throughout). Their recording of selections from “Porgy and Bess” remains popular.
He is also known for his performance of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs,” with the composer conducting; “But Who May Abide” and “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” with Leonard Bernstein conducting the 1956 recording of Handel’s “Messiah”; and German art songs and Bach cantatas. In 1975, he gave a sold-out concert in Carnegie Hall marking the 25th anniversary of his New York debut, and in 1984 he received a Grammy award for his narration of Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”
He became a professor of music and chair of the voice department at the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1975 and joined the faculty of Northwestern U. in 1994, but he continued to perform, touring with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, narrating the ensemble’s concert version of “Porgy and Bess,” and in the mid-1990s performed in a staging of “Showboat.” He was skedded to perform at Carnegie Hall next March.
He is survived by two brothers and numerous nieces and nephews.