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The Artistry of Aframerican Roland Hayes

Roland Hayes: Six Centuries of Song

February 8, 2011

Lyric tenor and composer Roland Hayes (1887-1977) may be the most important “Aframerican” (his term) classical singer of the 20th century that you don’t know about. Part of his obscurity is due to the curse of racism. Although Hayes made a successful, self-produced recital debut in Boston Symphony Hall in 1917, the roadblocks to success faced by what we now term Black artists led him to sail to Europe, where he made a successful debut in 1920. Two years later, a triumph in London’s Wigmore Hall led to an invitation from King George V and Queen Mary to sing at Buckminster Palace.

After continuing his vocal studies with a number of teachers, including Maurice Ravel, Hayes returned to the United States. This time, both Boston Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall welcomed him with open arms. By 1924 he was singing more than 80 concerts a year. Dubbed the “Black Caruso,” he was able to sell out the Hollywood Bowl as well as Wigmore Hall and Covent Garden.

Listen To The Music

Come again, Sweet Love

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

With the opera house closed to him, Hayes’ success in the United States was never complete. In 1931, he demanded that the audience at his Constitution Hall recital be desegregated. Although white audience members refused to change seats, and the concert continued, the incident led the hall’s management to institute a “white artists only” policy. Thus the stage was set for contralto Marian Anderson’s famed 1939 run-in with the Daughters of the American Revolution, who refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall. At the invitation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson subsequently performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Anderson has credited Hayes’ singing as a major inspiration for her career. She is not alone. The great William Warfield, who for a time was married to Leontyne Price, recounts a conversation with the elder Hayes in which he said, “I started all this … Now, you can’t stop where I stopped; you’ve got to go on.”

For invaluable insights into Hayes’ career and legacy, I recommend the MP3 of a recent short talk by Christopher Brooks, who is writing a biography of Hayes.

Despite his fame, Hayes made relatively few recordings in his prime. Some early tracks can be found in compromised MP3 form at various sites on the Web. Among the best are fragments from 1911, when he sang second tenor with the Fiske Jubilee Singers; one from 1919, where he sings a surprisingly credible, albeit light-voiced lyric tenor version of “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci; and at least one clip on YouTube.

The only CD currently available is Preiser Records’ 2-disc set, The Art of Roland Hayes: Six Centuries of Song. Consisting of 57 selections, originally released in 1953 and 1954, the recordings range from Old English folk songs, Dowland, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, and Wolf to Hayes’ arrangements of “Aframerican” folk songs, Negro worksongs, and spirituals. Though some are unaccompanied, most feature the pianism of Reginald Boardman.

Despite the beauty of the voice, there is no getting around the fact that, especially higher in the range, age has taken its toll on Hayes’ instrument. Nor, despite exemplary diction, are the French and German even remotely idiomatic.

Yet Hayes’ artistry remains intact. Listen, for example, to the way he caresses phrases in Dowland’s “Come again, Sweet Love, doth now invite.” The phrasing and accents are hardly what we would consider authentic, but the sensitivity to meaning and intention are supreme. The voice, too, is at its honeyed best. It’s a wonderful performance.

Spirituals are vigorously and convincingly sung, with the unaccompanied “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” so deeply felt that it could tear your heart apart. From great performances such as these, we can begin to imagine the tremendous impact Hayes made when his voice was at its peak.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.


You are right that the recordings (finally) preserved Hayes' voice at a time when his singing was a shadow of its former glory. But what a shadow it was, especially for a boy from Gordon County, Georgia who had grown up only a few miles from Hayes' birthplace (near my home town of Calhoun GA), and who had heard countless stories (indeed, they could have been termed "legends" by then) about Hayes and his remarkable mother. One day in late 1976 (I think) I passed Orchestra Hall in chicago and was stopped dead in my tracks by a poster advertising a concert by Hayes to take place that very evening (it was, I think, a benefit appearance for a Chicago charity). I didn't have time to go home and change clothes; I bought a ticket on the spot. The man who appeared onstage was a little frail (but his step was strong and his face was radiant, underneath short white hair.) And yes, his voice was uneven in its scale. But the high notes were thrilling, and the musicianship was extraordinary. During the group of spirituals that concluded the program, I wept, not just because they were beautiful and beautifully sung, but because a circle in my life had been completed, from long-ago Sunday School classes where Hayes was held up as an example to us -- black and white -- that determination, self-respect and humility could lead to triumph against all odds. I went backstage and waited in a long line. When I reached the door of his dressing room, where he stood to greet guests (his family, including his daughter Afrika, was sitting and standing in the room behiond him), shaking a little with both fear and emotion, I introduced myself and told him where I was from, a little afraid that a strange white man would have little hope of being believed. with great joy, he reached out from shaking my hand to embrace me, calling over his shoulder, "Oh look everybody, here's someone from Calhoun, from home." I have heard and worked with a number of great tenors since that day, including (I hasten to say, my idols) Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda (as well as Mr. Pavarotti and others), but I don't think any one of them has left as deep an imprint on my life -- both as artist and as sympathetic human being -- as Mr. Hayes. How lucky I was to see -- and hear -- him and that wonderful voice before he passed beyond my reach.


Thank you for your excellent article on Roland Hayes, especially during Black History Month. His legacy is indeed one to recognize, appreciate and celebrate. True, his foreign languages aren't up to today's standards, but the sheer beauty of his voice and his innate, elegant musicality certainly make up for any questionable pronunciations.

You mention that the only available CD is the Preiser set. I'm wondering if you know about the Smithsonian's single CD, "The Art of Roland Hayes" [RD 041]? It has some Columbia recordings plus excerpts from two 1955 recitals at Boston Hall. In addition are a considerable number of unissued recordings on his own lable, Angel Mo', which was named after his mother. There are also a few that Pelican issued in 1983. The remastering on this CD is excellent, and I highly recommend it as an excellent demonstration of his incredible talent.

Thank you again for bringing this artist to a wider audience. He deserves to be acknowledged as a pioneer who opened the door for the unforgiveably slow progress of acceptance of African American singers.

Larry Marietta

Hi Larry. Thanks lots for your comment. What is your source for the Angel Mo' and Pelican CDs? I don't see them listed at either ArkivMusic or As far as I can tell, the Smithsonian CD is only available used. I do have questions about how good digital remastering can possibly be at the damn of the digital age - most reissues from that period are, to my ears, extremely bright - and am eager to take a listen.

Again, thank you.

I meant the "dawn" of the digital age. Now you know what I really think about the sound ;-)

A fine piece, Jason. Thank you for it.

To add to the trove, let me tell you that we have silent film of Hayes performing at the Hollywood Bowl.

We acquired these materials from the Kaghan Collection at UCLA, a wonderful source for important rarities. (I prepared their catalogue.) The Hayes (and other) materials are brief, and unique. They may be seen in the Conductors on Film Collection at the Archive of Recorded Sound, Braun Music Building, Stanford.

Thanks again! People should remember this artist.

Thank you, Jason, for this tribute. And thank you, Marc Overton, for that personal glimpse.

A wonderful resource in terms of the history and lineage of Aframerican singers -- sadly, no longer with us -- was the vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee. She knew everyone from Roland Hayes up through Robert McFerrin, William Warfield, and many others and accompanied many of them in recital. She had spent quite a bit of time in Europe, where, of course, American singers of color for many years had to go to get work that was denied them in their home country. Her command of repertoire ranged from the Renaissance to spirituals. She later coached Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle and helped prepare their recitals, telecasts, etc. I met her when she was on the faculty at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and my wife the soprano Sylvia (Cooper) worked with her both there and after she had joined the faculty at Curtis Institute at the invitation of Max Rudolf. She was a delightful person to be around, incredibly upbeat, with an interesting story of her own. Her husband for many years was the Aframerican conductor Everett Lee, who I represented for a time (he conducted "Don Pasquale" for SF Spring Opera in 1971) and who I proposed for the music directorship of the Oakland Symphony when Harold Farberman was moving on, only to be told by someone on the Symphony's selection committee that "Oakland isn't ready for a black conductor just yet." (!) If you Google Sylvia Olden Lee you will find articles, interviews, speeches, and essays in which she addressed this topic. It is worth the search. My apologies for perhaps having gone off-topic here, but that's what these discussion threads are for, n'est ce pas?