Actor/singer Kenneth Spencer at one point bidded fair to succeed Paul Robeson as the leading artistic spokesman for the black community in theater and music. A singer by training -- with a degree from the Eastman School of Music -- Spencer made a major impression as a concert artist and on radio in California at the outset of the '40s, and in 1943 got major acting roles in two MGM films, Bataan and Cabin in the Sky, the latter an acclaimed musical. Unfortunately, Spencer didn't get the kind of career-defining roles or songs, such as Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones or Joe (and the signature song "Ol' Man River") that Robeson had been able to avail himself of in the '20s. Though he recorded a fair body of classical music (principally for Columbia Masterwork) as well as spirituals and folk songs, he never emerged with the same kind of profile that Robeson had achieved a half-generation earlier. Spencer's major extant recording is his performance of "Ol' Man River" in the cast recording of the 1946 revival of Showboat, although his beautiful bass-baritone voice can also be heard on the soundtrack of the 1946 movie A Walk in the Sun -- a fairly ubiquitous title in home video, due to its disputed copyright status -- singing the folk-like ballads authored by Earl Robinson and Millard Lampell that move the story and underscore the action. At the end of the '40s, frustrated over the meager opportunities that he found as a black actor/singer in America, Spencer moved to Europe, where he spent the next 15 years concertizing regularly and making the occasional film appearance. Spencer died in a plane crash just outside of New Orleans, LA, in 1964.
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