With his round, warm, expressive voice, William Warfield was one of the great bass-baritones of the twentieth century. Along with his impressive accomplishments in art song, oratorio, and spirituals, he gained widespread fame in the 1951 film of the musical Show Boat, in which he delivered a stunning rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” and later performed Porgy in Porgy and Bess with Leontyne Price (his then wife) as Bess.
Born in West Helena, Arkansas, in 1920, Warfield was raised in Rochester, New York, and studied at the Eastman School of Music. His Broadway debut took place in 1948, when he played Aneas in the short-lived play Set My People Free, by Dorothy Heyward—best known for her work in adapting the novel Porgy (by her husband, DuBose Heyward) into Porgy and Bess. The following year, Warfield returned to Broadway to play Cal in the first performances of Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina (1949), based on Hellman’s The Little Foxes.
If his two stints on Broadway brought Warfield only limited recognition, he would soon win national fame for his 1951 performance as Joe in the Technicolor remake of the Kern and Hammerstein masterpiece Show Boat, starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, and Joe E. Brown. One of the high points in the film is Warfield’s near-definitive performance of “Ol’ Man River” – a soulful, powerful, elegiac yet celebratory account, delivered with unforced resonance. The song would become strongly associated with Warfield, who can be heard singing it on several recordings, including Columbia’s 1962 stereo recording of Show Boat, featuring Barbara Cook as Magnolia and John Raitt as Ravenal.
After Show Boat, Warfield starred in another masterpiece of musical theater, Porgy and Bess, which he performed on tour in Europe in 1952. His Bess was the diva Leontyne Price, whom he soon married, though the two would divorce in 1972. They reprised their leading roles on a celebrated disc of highlights from Porgy and Bess issued in 1963.
Warfield was busy in the classical sphere throughout the 1950s. Shortly after a Town Hall debut in 1950, he toured Australia. He made the premiere recordings of Copland’s Old American Songs, with Copland at the piano, and the two would again collaborate on the Old American Songs in their orchestral versions, with Copland conducting. Warfield was the bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah in recordings by Ormandy with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic. And Bruno Walter chose Warfield for his 1956 recording of Mozart’s Requiem, commenting at the time: “Warfield is a great artist and has one of the most magnificent voices in the country.”
Warfield continued to have an active career in later years, and in 1984 he won a Grammy for his narration of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. He taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he would become chairman of the voice department. He subsequently taught at Northwestern University’s School of Music. He served as president of the National Association of Negro Musicians from 1985 to 1990.
Warfield left an autobiography, My Music and My Life, and died in 2002.