Ingenious: Old Man River
William Warfield was expecting a long day of recording, as he prepared to sing the iconic song “Old Man River,” for the classic MGM musical, Show Boat, in 1951. But after his first run-through, people started shouting, “Get Mr. Mayer down here!”
Louis B. Mayer—the second “M” in MGM—appeared five minutes later, and after listening to the song, he announced, “It’s a take.” The place erupted in cheers. Warfield had recorded the song in one take, the musical equivalent of a hole-in-one.
Warfield would go on to serve as a professor of music and chairman of the voice department at Illinois from 1975 to 1994. Although many know him best for his role in Show Boat, the classical world knew him for his powerful bass-baritone voice in opera, black spirituals and performances such as Handel’s “Messiah,” recorded with conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Warfield was born in West Helena, Ark., in 1920 and grew up in Rochester, N.Y., but he also said Vienna, Austria, and the U of I were like home to him. As he put it, “I found a family in my campus life.”
After serving in military intelligence during World War II, Warfield hit it big at his recital debut in New York City’s Town Hall in 1950. Suddenly, the offers came pouring in, including the part in Show Boat.
During his time at Illinois, Warfield won a 1984 Grammy in the spoken word category for narrating Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”
“Hollywood was still wrestling with its own soul, and not ready to open up to African-American themes,” Warfield said. “As I progressed along my career ladder, I found a few rungs missing…But it never occurred to me to give up.”
Source: My Music & My Life, by William Warfield with Alton Miller, Sagamore Publishing, Inc.