Kenneth Lee Spencer
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Kenneth Lee Spencer (25 April 1913 - 25 February 1964), usually known as Kenneth Spencer, was an African-American opera singer and actor. A talented bass-baritone, Spencer starred in a few Broadway musicals and musical films in the United States during the 1940s. Frustrated with the racial prejudice he experienced in the United States, Spencer moved to West Germany in 1950 where he had a successful opera and concert career. He also appeared in a number of German films. His career was cut short when he died in the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 304.
Spencer was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of a steel worker. He took private vocal lessons while working as a gardener, and eventually caught the attention of the tenor Roland Hayes who helped him to get a scholarship at the Eastman School of Music. After graduating in 1938, Spencer tried to get a performing career going but met many obstacles due to racial prejudice in the United States.
In 1938 he sang in the Federal Music Project NBC Blue radio opera Gettysburg, first from El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, then at the Hollywood Bowl. In 1940 he was understudy for Paul Robeson in the short lived Broadway musical John Henry. This was followed by his professional recital debut in 1941 at New York City's Town Hall.
During the early 1940s Spencer made his first major successes in California as a concert artist at the Hollywood Bowl and as a radio performer. This led to his being cast in significant parts in two MGM films in 1943, the musical film Cabin in the Sky where he shared the screen with Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and Louis Armstrong, and the war movie Bataan. Spencer also sang the ballad in A Walk in the Sun (1945). He returned to Broadway to portray Joe in the critically acclaimed 1946 revival of Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat, in which he sang Ol' Man River. The revival was highly successful, running almost exactly a year, remarkable at the time for a revival of a play or musical. This was the first American production of Show Boat to receive a full-fledged Broadway cast album, rather than just a studio cast recording (there had been a British cast album in 1928).[a]
In 1949 Spencer's life changed after performing in Europe for the first time at the International Music Festival in Nice. The European public responded with enthusiasm to his performance and he was soon getting offers to perform all over Europe. It was the first time that Spencer experienced a working environment and culture that was not hindered by racial prejudice. In 1950 he returned to Europe to sing in a number of radio broadcasts with the Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française and perform in several highly lauded concerts in Berlin, including performances with the Berlin Philharmonic. Spencer was so enamored with the German public and frustrated with the meager opportunities he found as a black artist in America that he moved his family to Wuppertal, West Germany in late 1950.
Spencer spent the next 14 years in Germany performing in concerts, operas, and plays. He also appeared in a few German films. His ability to perform not only Spirituals and classical music, but also folk songs in their original languages (French, German, Italian, Russian, Hebrew) won him much popularity in France and post-war Germany. He made a number of recordings with Columbia Masterworks Records during the 1950s and 1960s which consisted of classical music, spirituals, and folk songs.
- At least once source says his year of birth was 1911
- Kenneth J. Bindas on the Federal Music Project.
- Biography at Fandango.
- Show Boat (1946 Broadway revival, Ziegfeld Theatre) at IBDB
- Show Boat (1946 revival cast album) track listing at allmusic.com
- "Ol' Man River" sung by Kenneth Spencer (audio)
- Haine, Edgar A. (2000). Disaster in the Air. Associated University Presses. p. 155.