William Warfield Biography
Acclaimed throughout the world as one of the great vocal artists of our time, William Warfield is a star in every field open to a singer’s art.
His recital debut in New York’s famous Town Hall of March 19, 1950 put this artist overnight into the front ranks of concert artists. That historic debut was celebrated March 24, 1975 in Carnegie Hall when, for its 25th anniversary, William Warfield gave a recital for the benefit of the Duke Ellington Center.
Since Warfield’s remarkable debut, his career has flourished unabated in a wide assortment of memorable achievements. In 1950, he was invited by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to tour that continent for 35 concerts June through September (their winter season), including solo performances with their five leading symphony orchestras. While that tour was still proceeding, his manager back in New York had signed a contract with MGM for Warfield to play the featured role in the most recent version of the great Edna Ferber-Jerome Kern musical Showboat as Joe the dock hand.
This man, who was destined to become one of America’s greats, was born in West Helene, Arkansas, on January 22, 1920, the eldest of five sons. While still a small child, his father, Robert E. Warfield, decided to move his family north to Rochester, New York in order to seek better educational and employment opportunities. During his senior year in high school, he entered the regional auditions of the National Music Educators League Competition, which Warfield won quite handily. The District Award entitled him to enter the National Finals, held that year in St. Louis.
He won first place in the St. Louis Finals. The award was a scholarship to any American music school of his choice. Warfield chose the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester, right in his home city. There, the young singer earned his Bachelor of Arts degree and, after four interim years in military service, returned to Eastman to study for his Masters.
After military service, Warfield was engaged for singing lead in the national touring company of the Broadway hit Call Me Mister. It is interesting to note that three other members of that same “second company” cast went on as did Warfield to ultimate success and fame in the entertainment world: comedian Buddy Hackett, the romantic comedy lead Carl Reiner, and the famous choreographer/dancer/director Robert Fosse.
The intervening years have witnessed the Warfield career expand and deepened without interruption–countless concerts, recitals, soloist appearances with symphony orchestras and their big-name maestri, even performances as non-singing narrator…with many impressive honors and awards in recognition of William Warfield for his important contribution in The Arts. Among his frequent appearances in foreign countries, this artist has made six separate tours for the US Department of State, more than any other American solo artist.
Through the years, critics have commented that William Warfield’s superiority as recitalist stems from his unusual ability as an actor, which he has proven often in singing roles as well as those merely spoken. His most famous role is the title role in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. A memorable and important segment of Warfield’s professional life was in his performance in 1957 and 59 on NBC-TV’s Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Marc Connely’s The Green Pastures, in his starring role as “De Lawd.”
Numerous honors and awards William Warfield has received have included his honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Arkansas in 1972.
At the graduation ceremonies of Lafayette University (Easton, PA) in June 1977, he received another honorary Doctorate for his “Contributions in the Arts.” Similar honorary degrees have been awarded Warfield: 1982 from Boston University, 1983 as “Doctor of Human Letters” from Augustana College, Illinois, and in 1984 James Milliken University, also in Illinois. For a good many years, the artist has dedicated time and devotion to the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM).
In March 1984, he was the winner of a Grammy in the “Spoken Word” category for his outstanding narration of Aaron Copeland’s A Lincoln Portrait accompanied by the Eastman Philharmonia Orchestra
Since 1975, when he accepted his appointment as Professor of Music at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana Campus), Dr. Warfield has been able to devise his schedule for continuing outside concert performances along with master classes at many institutions of learning along with his regular classes at Illinois. He has been a professor at Northwestern University since 1994.
The Warfield schedule has since become even tighter since his appointment as Chairman of the Illinois Voice Department. In 1989, he began touring with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band as the narrator in the band’s concert presentation of Porgy and Bess. In 1996, live presentations of Showboat and, in 1997, Harlem Rhapsody were added to the JCJB/Warfield touring schedule.
Biography from Riverwalk.org