Roland Hayes

One of the highest paid musicians of his time, tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977) was a masterful interpreter of both classical songs and black spirituals.

Tenor Roland Hayes is acknowledged as a masterful interpreter of both classical songs and black spirituals. In a career that spanned more than thirty years, he performed throughout the United States and Europe. Hayes shattered the color barrier in the world of classical music, becoming one of the highest paid musicians of his time and paving the way for later African American singers. Summing up Hayes's career, Marva Griffen Carter wrote in the Black Perspective in Music: "Hayes's life of almost ninety years reveals a remarkable story of a man who went from the plantation to the palace, performing before kings and queens, with the finest international and American orchestras, in segregated communities before blacks and whites alike. … When he sang, art became more than polished excellence. It appealed to something beyond the intellect, something one could call the soul."

One of six children, Roland Hayes was born on June 3, 1887, in Curryville, Georgia. Although neither of his parents were afforded any formal educational opportunities, they recognized the value of good schooling. Hayes's father, William, a former slave turned farmer and carpenter, had an intense appreciation of music; his mother, Fannie, also a former slave, was determined to see that all of her children were educated—and that Roland would pursue a religious vocation.

Music was a natural part of Hayes's life. A timid child, he nevertheless liked to sing while at work on the farm and at the Baptist church the family attended. Hayes learned to read music from a man who conducted a seasonal singing school, and he also played the quills—joints of bamboo tied together like panpipes—to music of African origin.

When Hayes was eleven years old, his father died from injuries suffered several years earlier in a work-related accident. Young Roland and his brother Robert were forced to quit school and work to support the family. In 1900 the Hayes family—then consisting of Fannie, Roland, and his two brothers, Robert and Jesse—moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, Hayes worked at an iron foundry, awaiting his turn to attend school. At age sixteen, after he had been made a foreman at the foundry, he returned to his studies part-time. Determined to succeed despite the embarrassment of reciting lessons with students much younger than himself, Hayes even hired a tutor. He also started singing lessons with W. Arthur Calhoun, an Oberlin University music student who opened Hayes's ears to classical music. After three months, Hayes knew that regardless of his mother's objections, he must aspire to a career in music.

In 1905 Hayes entered the preparatory division at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. After three years, during which he received a scholarship and helped support himself through housework and vocal performances with various groups, Hayes reportedly left the university because of a misunderstanding. He worked at a men's club in Louisville for a short time and began to gain notoriety for his singing. After performing a few years at small social functions, he gave a concert in Boston with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911. After that, he stayed in Boston, where he found work as a hotel bellboy, a waiter, and a messenger for an insurance company. He continued his studies with operatic bass Arthur Hubbard and sent for his mother—who finally accepted her son's career choice—to come and live with him in the Northeast.

Early Performances

Hayes performed with American educator Booker T. Washington and singer-composer Harry Burleigh, whose reputations and experience enhanced that of the budding singer. However, early in the twentieth century, no professional manager was willing to sponsor a black performer; thus, in 1915 Hayes gave his first concert—self-managed— with little success. Two years later the undeterred singer rented Symphony Hall in Boston, then an unprecedented step for an African American. His performance of lieder, or classical songs, by Franz Schubert and arias by Mozart and Tchaikovsky created a sensation.

In early 1918 Hayes began a U.S. tour, which he managed himself, and in 1920 he set sail for London, England. After a year of scraping by with whatever small performances came their way, Hayes and his accompanist, Lawrence Brown, were booked to perform at the prestigious Wigmore Hall. Although he was suffering from pneumonia, Hayes sang masterfully. Two days later he gave a command performance for King George V and Queen Mary. While in London, Hayes also studied lieder singing with Sir George Henschel.

Toured the United States

Upon his return to the United States in 1922, the world famous Hayes performed at Symphony Hall in Boston to rave reviews. Shortly afterward he became the first black singer to appear at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Hayes then began a series of concert tours that took him to nearly every corner of the country. By 1924 he was performing more than eighty concerts per year, many with major orchestras, such as those in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Detroit. He was widely praised for his interpretations of German and French songs, as well as his renditions of black folk songs and spirituals, which he later compiled in a single volume titled My Songs.

In 1925 Hayes gave a command performance for Queen Mother Maria Christian of Spain. That same year, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal, given annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the "most outstanding achievement among colored people." Hayes toured Italy in 1927 and the Soviet Union the following year. He was hailed wherever he went as one of the greatest lieder singers of his era for his silken smooth tone and sensitive lyrical interpretations. Although Hayes often performed concert renditions of arias, he never appeared in an opera because interracial casting was frowned upon during his era.

Expressed Musical Philosophy

In a 1947 Christian Science Monitor interview, Hayes spoke about the universality of his work, "When I began my career I realized that if I would speak to all men, I must learn the language and the ways of thought of all men. What good could I do if I knew only my own ways and the thoughts of my own people? So I learned to sing the songs of all people. … The song I sing is nothing. But what I give through the song is everything. I cannot put into words what I try to do with this instrument that is nearest to me—my voice. If I were to frame it in words, I would lose some of the ability to make it effective."

Remembered as a Master of Song

In addition to his exceptionally long singing career, Hayes taught voice at Boston University beginning in 1950. In 1954 he toured Europe, where he was greatly admired in England, Holland, and Denmark. At age seventy he still garnered rave reviews: "What Mr. Hayes does is live each song he sings, " wrote Boston Herald music critic Rudolph Elie. "To be sure, there are many others who so the same thing. … The essential difference here, however, is that Mr. Hayes knows what he is living: there is a classic balance between his intellectual comprehension and his emotional concept. The consequence is an atmosphere so intense as to be gripping. … [The listener] is in the presence of a master." In 1962, on his seventy-fifth birthday, Hayes gave his farewell concert at Carnegie Hall.

Although Hayes recorded for a number of labels, including Vocalion, American Columbia, Vanguard, and Veritas, few recordings are available. In 1990, however, the Smithsonian Institution issued The Art of Roland Hayes, an audio recording of various performances by Hayes from 1939 to 1965.

Hayes was a groundbreaking figure in the field of music who helped pave the way for classical African American artists such as Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Leontyne Price, Simon Estes, William Warfield, and George Shirley to name but a few. In a television documentary titled The Musical Legacy of Roland Hayes, William Warfield recalled a conversation with Hayes, who advised African American singers: "I started all this. … Now, you can't stop where I stopped; you've got to go on."

Further Reading on Roland Hayes

Hayes, Roland, My Songs: Aframerican Religious Folk Songs Arranged and Interpreted by Roland Hayes, Little, Brown, 1948.

Helm, MacKinley, Angel Mo' and Her Son, Roland Hayes, Little, Brown, 1942.

Atlanta Journal, November 25, 1990.

Black Perspective in Music, Fall 1974; Fall 1977.

Boston Globe, June 17, 1990.

Boston Herald, October 21, 1957.

Christian Science Monitor, November 22, 1947.

Record Collector, Volume 10, 1955.

Washington Post, February 19, 1990.

Hayes was also the subject of the television documentary The Musical Legacy of Roland Hayes.

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