Yesterday, I noted that Paul Robeson's version of the song "Ol' Man River" was the standard by which others are judged. Having established that, I believe there is one other that I find pretty much at that level and equally definitive, and that's from William Warfield.
William Warfield was a man of great skill, and though perhaps less-known to the general public today than Paul Robeson, he did reach a level of great acclaim, thanks to having had a longer career and also living deep into the multimedia age, passing away only about 10 years ago -- still occasionally performing, and being active on the teaching staff at Northwestern University, where he became a professor in their acclaimed Music School. A position he kept until his death at the age of 80. All the while promoting the cause of and creating a scholarship fund for African-American singers.
Bear with me here, there are a couple of treats below.
Trust me on this.
Among his many accomplishments, he was an opera star and toured throughout Europe for the U.S. State Department in Porgy & Bess with Leontyne Price, who subsequently married for a while. He also made the premiere recording of Aaron Copland's "Old American Songs."
And when the musical Show Boat was remade as a film in 1951, it was Warfield who played the role of 'Joe.' He subsequently re-created the role in the 1966 revival at Lincoln Center, and on a studio recording with Barbara Cook and John Raitt. His interpretation of the song was slightly different, perhaps more textural than explosive, but with the resonance, power, sadness and hope the song demands.
The main version used in the remake was trimmed back from the original, though it's repeated throughout the film, as the story requires. This footage edits two of those sequences today.
A year before then, in 2001, the Hollywood Bowl did a semi-staged concert version of Show Boat, which starred Broadway stars Alice Ripley and Douglas Sills, as well as Susan Egan. I went to see it -- in large part because, as I noted, I love Show Boat. But mainly because it featured -- at age 81 -- William Warfield!
In fairness, Warfield didn't play the role of 'Joe,' but rather took a non-singing part as the narrator, coming on stage through to fill in the truncated book. But just seeing him there, participating in Show Boat, was a joy. And they were wise enough to include a nod to the audience, when -- after Warfield introduced the character of 'Joe' and then walked off -- when he and actor Gregg Baker cross paths with one another, they both stopped for just a moment, and looked at each other, which brought an appreciate laugh and applause for the 15,000 audience members.
But the biggest nod and emotional surprise came near the end of the show when 'Joe' has a reprise of "Ol' Man River," and not only did Baker perform The Song...but Warfield returned to the stage to join him and have some solo moments. If you thought the audience went crazy...you'd be right.
(Here's how the Los Angeles Times described it in their review, which I just tracked down. "...while, in a twist that brought a tear to many an eye, William Warfield, who sang that song so memorably in the 1951 film and served as Sunday's narrator, reprised a verse of it as old Joe at the story's end.")
When Warfield passed away the next year, I wrote a note to the Music School at Northwestern, and explained about seeing him at the Hollywood Bowl the previous summer. I got a very nice note back, explaining what a wonderful and beloved member of the department Warfield had been -- and how when they gave him a party for his 80th birthday, he put on an impromptu concert, which included a performance of "Ol' Man River," which she said bowled everyone over and there wasn't a dry eye.
Lest you think that was hyperbole, here is a rare treat. William Warfield in 2000, at age 78, at a small event performing "Ol' Man River." This comes with rarely-heard, moving lyrics from one of the song's reprises -- along with his powerful tribute to Paul Robeson.
Just so you know, the performance actually lasts a minute less than what the video says. That last minute? It's roars of cheering.
There are many wonderful performances of "Ol' Man River." But when anyone dives in, Paul Robeson and William Warfield are the standards you're matched again.
And as you see here, William Warfield he just keeps rolling along...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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