William Warfield BM 42

In a career that has spanned more than 50 years, William Warfield's reputation as a bass-baritone soloist, recitalist, actor, and narrator is known throughout the world.


Born January 22, 1920 in West Helena, Arkansas, the eldest of five sons, Dr. Warfield moved to Rochester at a young age with his family in hopes of finding better educational and employment opportunities. As a young man in high school in Rochester, his talents were recognized early on by his teachers. In his senior year, he handily won the regional and district competitions of the National Music Educators League, and with the help of fund-raising efforts by his senior class he entered the national competition in St. Louis, winning first prize in the finals and a scholarship to any American music school of his choice. He chose to return to Rochester and the Eastman School of Music for his studies, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1942, and after four years of service in the military, returned to earn his master's degree in 1946. Following military service, Dr. Warfield performed as lead singer in the national touring company of the Broadway hit Call Me Mister . His acting career progressed on Broadway with his appearances in Dorothy Heyward's Set My People Free and the operatic treatment of the Lillian Hellman play The Little Foxes .


However, it was his debut recital in New York's Town Hall in 1950 that propelled his career to the forefront: he was immediately invited on a 35-concert tour by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Closer to home, also in 1950, he signed on to play "Joe the dock hand" in the MGM motion picture Show Boat . His onscreen performance of the song "Old Man River" became legendary. However, his most famous portrayal has been in the lead role of George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess . The RCA-Victor recording of Porgy and Bess starring Dr. Warfield and Leontyne Price won a Grammy Award in 1964. His career expanded to television with memorable performances in the starring role of "De Lawd" in the 1957 and 1959 NBC-TV Hallmark Hall of Fame productions of Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures .


In the following decades, Dr. Warfield has distinguished himself in every major city in America and around the world in solo recitals and as bass-baritone soloist with symphony orchestras in the great oratorios, most notable Handel's Messiah, Mendelssohn's Elijah, the Mozart, Verdi, and Brahms Requiems and the Passions of Bach and Beethoven. His recorded narration of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait accompanied by the Eastman Philharmonia won a Grammy Award in the spoken word category. Dr. Warfield made six separate tours for the U.S. Department of State, more than any other American solo artist.


Dr. Warfield has received numerous honorary degrees and awards from academic institutions including the University of Arkansas, Lafayette University, Boston University, Augustana College, James Milikin University, Illinois State University and Moorehouse College.


For his many accomplishments and his significant contributions to music and drama, the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester is proud to honor William Warfield with its Alumni Achievement Award.


Rochester, New York

January 26, 2000