Sir Willard White - A Tribute to Paul Robeson

MICHAEL DRAKE St Andrew's Hall, Norwich (Norfolk and Norwich Festival)


St Andrew's Hall, Norwich (Norfolk and Norwich Festival)

I offer no excuse for self-plagiarism in using the words “charisma,” “presence,” and “vocal instrument” from the last time I heard Willard White (at the King's Lynn Festival some three years ago), for I cannot improve on them in reviewing this concert telling the highs and lows of Robeson's life.

Deep River with Ol' Man River forever associated with Robeson opened and closed the tribute, narrated via the versatile and mellifluous voice of Beverley Humphreys while Willard White himself spoke many of Robeson's own words.

The songs explored Sir Willard's wonderful sonorous range and tone whether in the jazzy arrangement of All God's Children got a Robe or an English folk song. And here, tribute to the extraordinary skills of the Neal Thornton Band with Neal on piano and responsible for all the diverse musical arrangements, virtuoso trumpeter Guy Barker, Gareth Huw Davies (bass), Mark Doffman (drums) and guitarist Richard Bolton.

It was in Russia that Robeson felt he stood “in full human dignity” and in the musical journey one of the highlights - not fair because all the songs were highlights - was the Song of the Volga Boatman with Sir Willard's bass-baritone being in rich Russian tradition with the power and passion of a thrilling sound. There was delicacy too of All Through the Night and Hoagie Carmichael's Lazy Bones.

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And so to perhaps the most famous of the Robeson songs, Ol' Man River and it was here that all those words previously used to describe the performance came together - “he don't say nuttin'” but he sang it all from the heart and for me at least it will be a cornerstone of this year's programme.

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