Paul Le Roy Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on 9th April, 1898, into a middle-class family. His mother was a teacher, his father whose early years had been spent in slavery was an ex-theology student and Presbyterian preacher. Brought up in a hard-working, God-fearing environment, Pauls natural inclinations for study were encouraged and, at thirteen, he was selected for Somerville High School. There, in addition to indulging his fondness for amateur dramatics, he shone at football and sang in the glee-club. Deciding at length upon a career in jurisprudence, however, he successively enrolled in the law faculties of two leading American universities: first, Rutgers in New Jersey, then Columbia in New York City. Paul graduated from Rutgers with a Bachelors degree in 1919, was called to the bar in 1921 and continued to study law until he graduated with a degree in the subject, in 1923.
Meanwhile, also a keen semi-pro student of drama, Paul had already made his acting debut in Simon The Cyrenian (Harlem YMCA, 1920), had had a brief stint as a cast-member of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissles all-black Broadway melange Shuffle Along (he temporarily replaced the bass William Hann in the Four Harmony Kings) and, in July 1922, had sailed to England where he appeared in London in Mary Hoyt Wiborgs Taboo (later re-titled The Voodoo) with the celebrated doyenne of English actresses, Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865-1940). Back in the USA, he sang in the chorus-line of Lew Leslies Plantation Revue (this starred Florence Mills) and between 1922 and 1924 appeared as a straight-actor in various plays with the Provincetown Players, including parts in Nan Bagby Stevens Roseanne, then in Eugene O Neills All Gods Chillun Got Wings, at the authors personal request. In 1924 Robeson made his first film appearance, as a young preacher, in Oscar Micheauxs best-known silent Body And Soul and in London, the following year, he played the title role in ONeills 1921 masterpiece Emperor Jones (the 1933 United Artists film-version, made in a week, also starred Robeson).
In 1925, following precedents recently set by the tenor John Payne and other black American artists, Robeson gave his first New York recital of Negro spirituals. After this event, which did much to stimulate world interest in the genre, his voice was defined "the best musical instrument wrought by nature in our time"; a fair description, for Robesons voice and artistry were "natural" in a folksy sense. True, he was a classical actor, but rather than moulded in the image of bel canto, his singing from the start more befitted shows, musicals, spirituals and the sentimental ballads which were soon to become his stock-in-trade.
In 1927 Robeson starred in Porgy And Bess (the Pulitzer Prize-winning play version of the 1925 Du Bose Heyward novel upon which Gershwin based his 1935 folk-opera) and in May 1928 partnered Marie Burke in the London première of Jerome Kerns Show Boat. Thereafter his name became immortally linked with that shows best-known number, the miniature musical homily Ol Man River. Robeson did not create Joe (Jules Bledsoe had already done that, in the original Broadway production), however he went on to sing the role in the 1932 New York revival and in both of the early film adaptations (1928 and 1936) all three in partnership with Helen Morgan (1900-1941).
In 1928 Robeson, now resident in London, was asked to record Roll Away, Clouds. A rousing chorus number cast in the style of Ol Man River, this was a hit in the West End success Virginia, with music by the London-born team of Joseph A. Tunbridge (1886-1961) and Jack Waller (1885-1957). While Robeson had no connection with the show other than this contemporary disc, it is tempting to conjecture that it might have been an even bigger success had he actually appeared in it. During 1929, he went on to record other popular hits from shows and films in vogue at the time, some of which sound tailor-made for his voice. While Sonny Boy and Little Pal by Ray Henderson (1896-1970) were originally Jolson creations from two of his early Warner talkies (respectively, The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs), the spiritual-style Lonesome Road a collaboration between composer-conductor Nathaniel Shilkret (1895-1982) and the pioneer crooner, actor and songwriter Gene Austin (1900-1972) was an extra number for the now-lost pioneer film-version of Show Boat.
Throughout the 1930s, Robesons career was many-sided and included varied stage and film appearances. In 1930, he won acclaim for his first London Othello (to Peggy Ashcrofts Desdemona) and, thanks to his imposing presence and candid delivery, became a noted actor in film-musicals. Based on the 1911 story by Edgar Wallace, Sanders Of The River (London Films, 1935; US title Bosambo), a Kiplingesque story of unrest in British colonial Africa, co-starred Leslie Banks and Nina Mae McKinney; its score, by the Russian-born British film songwriter Mischa Spoliansky (1898-1984) included the famous Canoe Song and the dreamy Congo Lullaby. Scored by Eric Ansell, Song Of Freedom (Hammer, 1937) a "weird fable" in which a black London dock-worker becomes first an opera-singer then an African freedom-fighter, co-starred Elisabeth Welch (b. 1904), who joins Paul in the affectingly sung Sleepy River and (from the same recording session) in an amusing "ad lib" studio performance of I Still Suits Me (from Show Boat). Welch partnered Paul again in 1937 in Big Fella (British Lion/Fortune). "A very unpretentious vehicle" for Robeson (based on Claude McKays novel Banjo, in which a black man returns a lost child to his English parents in Marseilles), its Eric Ansell score offers the lilting Lazin and I Dont Know Whats Wrong.
In Jericho (Buckingham/Capitol (GB) -US title Dark Sands, 1937), a "lively star vehicle" in which "a court-martialled officer pursues a murderous deserter across Africa", Robeson was cast with Henry Wilcoxon, Wallace Ford and John Laurie and regaled his listening audience with "Deep Desert" and My Way. The first film-version of the classic 1885 African adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard, King Solomons Mines (Gainsborough (GB), 1937) co-starred Cedric Hardwicke, Roland Young and John Loder. Its fine score, again by Spoliansky, included the Wagon Song Ho! Ho! And the Mountain Song
Peter Dempsey, 2002
Digital transfers and restoration by Peter Dempsey
Photo of Paul Robeson, 1925 (b/w original, Hulton/Archive)