Willard White’s Tribute to Paul Robeson

MICHAEL DRAKE King's Lynn Corn Exchange


Charisma. Presence. Call it what you will, in the richness of his voice, whether a few spoken words or a well-crafted song passage, bass-baritone Willard White has the ability given to few to transfix the listener.

Which was why, after Monday's Alfred McAlpine-sponsored tribute to the legendary human rights campaigner Paul Robeson, he was given a standing ovation.

Would that it was mandatory for leaders to listen to Robeson's story brought to life by this larger-than-life character in spirituals, folk songs and songs from musicals linked by Beverley Humphreys' flowing, perfectly weighted but never obtrusive commentary.

Who was not moved by the words of Joe Hill or the animated singing in Gershwin's I Got Plenty of Nothin'?

Of course Willard White echoed Robeson's "deep sonorous voice" in Deep River and the trip to Russia brought a wonderful performance of the Song of the Volga Boatmen.

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The songs spoke to us as they were meant to – Bones in particular, with Guy Barker's trumpet a voice in itself.

Perhaps overall there was a little too much of the trumpet jazz, brilliant though it was, but the backing quintet made up an indelible part of the story.

Willard White's voice is an instrument, controlled and vivid in its sonority.

"In my heart I keep singing," said Robeson.

Mr White's contribution had been all too short by the time he came to the end with Ole Man River.

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