It's a bona fide senior moment when a package arrives and you have no memory of ordering what's inside (Amazon Marketplace has a longer memory than some of us, apparently...), but such was the case this weekend with a copy of the surprisingly-hard-to-find Favorite Spirituals by the great tenor Roland Hayes. It was perfect timing though, because the weekend when America's first front-running African-American candidate for president was winning primary contests and Jazz/R&B artist Herbie Hancock was pulling off an upset at the Grammy Awards was ideal for getting re-acquainted with one of the trailblazers of African-American concert music.
Hayes was born in the 1880s, the son of former slaves. He began singing early in life, partly to help support his family after the early death of his father. A job singing in a silent movie theater (where he sang from offstage so as not to reveal his color) eventually led to his joining the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers, and this opportunity launched his career. Hayes self-produced a debut concert in Boston's Symphony Hall, and by the late 1920s he had become -- against heavy odds -- the highest paid tenor in the world, giving command performances for British royalty and touring extensively in Europe, and reportedly making more than $100,000 annually. Hayes was also very successful in America, but persistent racism and the limitations of Jim Crow were always working against him, as demonstrated by his 1942 beating and arrest after protesting the eviction of his wife and daughter from a segregated shoe store.
Hayes sang a wide repertory that consisted of many languages, but his greatest legacy was bringing spirituals, which he called "Aframerican folk hymns" and which he had grown up hearing, to the concert stage. This album captures Hayes singing his own arrangements relatively late in his career, but the beauty of his voice and mastery of his art are undiminished. It also features his original song cycle The Life of Christ, which he assembled from a number of familiar spirituals and then connected with piano interludes.
Three Wise Men to Jerusalem Came