Born in 1920 to a family of sharecroppers in West Helena, Arkansas, William Warfield first developed his extraordinary vocal skills by singing in the choir of his father’s Baptist church. During his childhood, the Warfield family moved to Rochester, New York, where he took formal voice lessons. In 1938, during his high school senior year, Warfield won the District Award for the National Music Educators’ League vocal competition, which included a scholarship to the music school of his choice. The following fall, Warfield began study at the Eastman School of Music, where he received his bachelor’s degree in music studies in 1942.
After a period of service in the U.S. Army during World War II, Warfield returned to New York and earned a part in the Broadway show Call Me Mister