Sisserita Jones, Maria Selika (the first black artist to perform at the White House), Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield – these and many others, largely unknown today – were African-American singers of opera and classical music. All were victims, personally and professionally, of racial prejudice. Roland Hayes (1887 – 1977) was luckier in that he had the opportunity (an opportunity that he largely created for himself) to make recordings, some of which still exist to testify to his art.
Until the middle of the 20th century, a black artist in America could sing gospel or classical music in concert but appearing on an opera stage was another matter. By the late 1930’s, small local opera companies occasionally hired negro sopranos and baritones but a black operatic tenor was simply unemployable. Sopranos, after all, usually died at the end of most operas, but tenors sang love songs – to white sopranos. Roland Hayes was an artist. He was gifted with a warm, tenor voice but his art was in using the beauty of his voice to express the meaning and emotions of his songs. He was the first African-American to sing with a symphony orchestra and the first to perform negro spirituals on a concert stage. He gave his last concert at the age of 85. He would never appear on an opera stage but his recordings (heavily influenced by his love of Caruso) show what might have been.
Roland Hayes was born in Curryville, Georgia. His parents, William and Fanny Hayes, were former slaves as were his grandparents. After his father died, his mother moved the family to Chatanooga, Tennessee. As a child He sang spirituals in the church his mother hd founded and received his early music training there. “One day,” he later said, “a pianist came to our church in Chattanooga, and I, as a choir member, was asked to sing a solo with him. The pianist liked my voice, and he took me in hand and introduced me to phonograph records by Caruso. That opened the heavens for me. The beauty of what could be done with the voice just overwhelmed me.”
In 1905, with only a sixth grade education, Hayes entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee as a preparatory student, supporting himself by working as a servant, as a messenger for an insurance company, and by singing at a local silent movie theater – off stage so that people could not see his color. He joined the Fisk University Jubilee Singers and became the lead tenor. And he saved every penny he could.
After a Jubilee Singers tour to Boston, Massachusetts, Hayes left the group and remained in Boston. When he could find no sponsors he used all the money he had saved ($400) to rent Boston Symphony Hall and give his first concert. The concert was a success and he soon became quite popular. Unable to get professional management, he arranged and promoted his own concerts, and eventually was invited to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York.
When no record company was interested in a negro who sang classical music, Hayes used his own money to make several private recordings which he then sold by mail and at his concerts.
In 1920 Hayes performed his first European concert in London and was soon singing in capital cities throughout Europe. He returned to the United States in 1923 and, now with a professional manger, made his debut at Boston’s Symphony Hall conducted by Pierre Monteux. He was the first African-American soloist to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and had become one of the highest-paid tenors in the world by 1924, earning a reported $100,000 per year. He sold out both Covent Garden in London and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles even performed one concert in Atlanta, Georgia before a desegregated audience.
Hayes continued giving concerts throughout Europe and the Americas. In 1932 he married and began a “semi-retirement,” giving only occasional concerts. He owned a home in France, just outside Paris, and had bought the 600 acre farm in Curryville where he had born and where his mother had worked as a slave and later as a sharecropper. He named the farm, “Angel Mo,” his childhood name for his mother. His voice darkened somewhat as he aged and was a bit past its prime but his artistry remained. A critic wrote: “What Mr. Hayes does is live each song he sings. 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 1942 Roland Hayes was 53 years old. He had sung before Kings and Queens, received honorary doctorates from famous Universities, been awarded numerous medals (including the prestigious NAACP Springarn Medal) and received at the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt for whom he composed and dedicated a song. But that year his wife and daughter were thrown out of a shoe store in Georgia for sitting in the whites-only section. When Hayes complained to the store owner, both he and his wife were arrested and Hayes was beaten by the police. The incident made national headlines and the governor of Georgia responded by warning blacks who didn’t agree with segregation to “stay out of Georgia …We are going to keep the Jim Crow laws and protect them.” Hayes soon left Georgia and sold his farm.
Hayes sang benefit concerts, encouraged and tutored young black singers, and taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina for several years. In 1962 he gave a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall. His daughter Afrika, a soprano who became a well known concert singer and music teacher. She performed with him three times in concert and in 1965, when he was 78 years old, they recorded a duet together.
Roland Hayes died of pneumonia at the age of 90.