William Caesar Warfield

Charter InducteesClass of 2015

This bass baritone singer and actor born in West Helena, Arkansas was raised in Rochester, NY. He majored in voice at the Eastman School of Music where he cut short his pursuit of a master’s degree to perform on Broadway. He went on to tour Europe performing in Porgy and Bess and in 1951 appeared in the motion picture musical, “Showboat”, singing the definitive film version of “Old Man River.” He made many live TV appearances and in 1984 won a Grammy Award in the spoken word category.


William Caesar Warfield (1920–2002) was an internationally acclaimed bass-baritone concert singer who performed on stage, film and television. He is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Joe in MGM’s 1951 remake of the movie Showboat in which he sang what became his signature song “Ol Man River.” He went on to sing the song across the globe in several languages for the next four decades.

William Warfield was raised and educated in Rochester, N.Y., where his father worked in Baptist ministry. He took piano lessons and won his first singing competition when he was 18. He studied at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, where he graduated with a degree in voice in 1942.

That same year he was drafted into the Army, where he was the only African-American member of the “Ritchie Boys,” which were thousands of World War II soldiers who specialized in intelligence in Fort Ritchie in Maryland.

After the war he toured the world starring in theater productions and performing in big-city clubs. In 1952,Warfield performed in Porgy and Bess with a European tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department — he made six separate tours for the U.S. Department of State, more than any other American solo artist. In the 1970s he toured Europe with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

As an educator, he was a professor of music with the University of Illinois and Northwestern University’s School of Music. As a concert performer he narrated many times Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” for which he won a Grammy in 1984, accompanied by the Eastman Philharmonia. The William Warfield Scholarship Fund was formed in 1977 at Eastman School of Music to provide financial aid to talented voice students.

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