Tuesday, October 06, 2015
Brian Wise / Terrance McKnight WQXR Host
The accomplishments of Roland Hayes, the first world-renowned African-American classical singer, have been overshadowed by some of those who followed him. But a new biography, called Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor (Indiana University Press), may bring fresh attention to his career.
Born on June 3, 1887 in rural Georgia to a former slave, Hayes is believed to be the first black classical musician to make a commercial recording. At his peak in the 1920s, he was the world's highest-paid singer, reportedly making around $100,000 annually.
He sang for the crowned heads of Europe and in prestigious concert halls around the globe, including Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall in London and Symphony Hall in Boston.
Hayes was the first black person to sing with a major orchestra – the Boston Symphony – and the first to sing a command performance for the British Royal Family.
Baritone Robert Sims, a co-author of the new biography, tells host Terrance McKnight that Hayes was a trailblazer for black classical musicians like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and Leontyne Price.
"What he accomplished in the early 1900s – the 1920s were the height of his celebrity – no one else was able to do," Sims said. "Through sheer determination, self-belief and drive…He was determined to have this career and he had it."
But even when Hayes became a successful artist, he faced the same prejudices as most African Americans at the time. During his tour of Germany in 1923, he encountered hostile audiences, including one at a recital in Berlin who mocked him for 10 minutes before he was able to sing. He eventually won them over with his nuanced singing of a Schubert song.