I have an original recording of Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River.” It was a given to me by his son, Paul Robeson Jr. They looked quite a bit alike, tall and imposing. But the father had the voice.
At the time, Paul Robeson Jr. and I were talking about producing a one-man stage show about his father. Kinda like Stuart Whitman doing Truman in “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry” or Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight” or Brian Gordon Sinclair doing “Hemingway on Stage.”
We had Avery Brooks. The one-time star of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” has an incredible voice. Maybe not quite up to Paul Robeson’s bass baritone, but close enough for Broadway.
Paul Jr. told me stories about his father. How he was an All-American football player and class valedictorian at Rutgers. How he got a law degree from Columbia while playing in the National Football League. How he became as major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, delivering an outstanding performance in “Emperor Jones.” How he enjoyed major concert tours, performing his songs across America and around the world. How his star-turn in “Othello” was the longest-running production of a Shakespearean play ever staged on Broadway. How he made his mark in the stage version of “Show Boat.” And how he gained widespread popularity for his appearance in the film production of “Show Boat.”
As it happens, “Show Boat” (1936) is currently screening at the Tropic Cinema, a part of its Repertory series.
Based on the Edna Ferber novel, it was turned into a musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by James Whale, it is considered the best of the three screen versions.
The slight storyline follows the adventures of a theatrical troupe aboard a Mississippi riverboat.
Irene Dunne stars as Magnolia, whose family owns the Cotton Blossom, a paddleboat that traverses the river putting on shows. Alan Jones co-stars as Gaylord Ravenal, a charming riverboat gambler who sweeps Magnolia off her feet. They marry; they have a daughter; they separate; they come together again. A bittersweet romance.
But viewers come for the musical experience, the highlight of the show being Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River.”
The film featured several members of the original Broadway cast. That included Paul Robeson, reprising his tole as Joe, a worker on the riverboat. His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” became the benchmark for all future performers of the song.
“Show Boat” may seem quaint and out of date, unPC in its racial themes, but it stands large as a musical. You will want to see it.
Robeson was later targeted by the FBI for his leftist leanings, his support of Civil Right, and his pro-Soviet views. Shortly before he died at 77 from complications of a stroke he said, “I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.”
Paul Jr. once repeated to me that “my father never joined the Communist Party or any party for that matter. He was an independent artist and would never submit to any kind of organizational discipline.”
But as I replay that record given to me, I can admire the discipline of his singing.
Footnote: There was the infamous incident in 1929 at London’s Savoy Grill, in which Paul Robeson was refused seating. He issued a press release describing the insult and turning it into a matter of public debate.
He wrote, “Do you remember that we were talking one day not too long ago about the lack of prejudice against negroes in London? At that time I thought that there was little or none, but an experience my wife and I had recently has made me change my mind …”
About a decade ago, I witnessed a similar incident with a much different ending. Paul Robeson Jr., Avery Brooks, and I were turned away at the grill in New York’s Hyatt Grand Central Hotel. But before we could protest, a Black manager swooped in, brushed the maître d’ aside, and said, “Mr. Brooks, we’re so happy to have you with us today. Right this way please.” The actor turned to me and whispered, “Starring in a TV show has some benefits.”
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