Nearly a century before Billie Eilish or Drake, Roland Hayes was one of the hottest tickets in music. And over the course of 33 years, the Pullman campus was a regular stop for the man world-renowned for his mellow tenor voice and his wide-ranging musical selections.
Hayes is believed to be the first black classical musician to make a commercial recording, and at his peak in the 1920s he was earning around $100,000 annually, when the average American made $750.
Hayes first visited what was then Washington State College on March 12, 1927, singing classical songs in several languages, and closing with spirituals, which often brought the house down.
The 1927 Chinook yearbook contains a recap of the concert that captures the affect Hayes had on the room.
“…His facilities for expression and his mode of expression stand unparalleled,” the yearbook said. “His program consisted of four groups English, French and Italian, and negro spiritual songs. Throughout all songs the artist remained more than adequate to every demand upon his voice, which is not strong, but is a voice of unrivalled clarity and sweetness of tone.”
Hayes would return to Pullman four more times over the next 33 years, concluding with an October 16, 1960 concert and leaving an important mark on the University’s growth.
For example, WSU music Professor Horace Alexander Young speculates Hayes could have been an early artist-in-residence of sorts. It’s likely Hayes held seminars, workshops and even lessons with students during some or all of his visits. He taught music at Boston College and mentored many younger African American singers, including Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and William Warfield.
About this series
The contributions of America’s communities of color have long helped shape Washington State University, sometimes in ways that wouldn’t become apparent for decades or generations to come.
Re‑Exploring History is dedicated to taking a fresh look at those moments during the early‑ to mid‑20th century where African American academics, performers and entertainers left their mark on the University’s future, even while having to navigate segregation and other societal obstacles.
The series relies heavily on the historical sleuthing skills of WSU staff member and Ph.D. student James Bledsoe and Mark O’English with the Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections section of WSU Libraries.
Read the first installment featuring Booker T. Washington
“You couldn’t necessarily hire black faculty back then, so the next best thing was to bring in artists in residence,” Young said. “In some ways, WSU was on the front line in having a hands‑on relationship with issues of race, diversity and inclusion.”
Back in 1930, shortly before Hayes would return for his second visit, the Daily Evergreen recalled his first with gushing praise.
“Roland Hayes has captured a delicate, floating half voice which is a new experience in the world’s concert halls,” the student newspaper read, referring to his 1927 visit. “His quiet intensity, his utter absorption in the sorrow or ecstasy of the song before him—this perhaps above all holds his audiences wonder-struck. Thus musician and layman are led into the subtlest and deepest beauties of the art of song. Three years ago Roland Hayes sang in the state college auditorium to a capacity audience. His illustrious recital left the audience amazed with the grandeur of his voice and the sincerity of his interpretation. The beauty of his songs left an everlasting impression on his listeners.”
Tickets for that 1930 concert ranged from $1.50 to $3.50 and the concert was billed as, “the foremost attraction of the year,” by the Evergreen.
Hayes was born in 1887 to former slaves, and grew up in Georgia before moving to Chattanooga, Tenn. at age 11. He attended Fisk University, where he eventually joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
After the Jubilee Singers tour stopped in Boston, Hayes remained there, saved up his money and rented out Symphony Hall for his own concert. He continued to arrange and promote concerts on his own, steadily gaining fame across the Northeast. He first performed in London in 1920 and he would tour Europe several times throughout his career.
In 1931, Hayes had another connection with the Cougars, this time in Portland, Oregon. The California and Washington State football teams were set to play at Multnomah Civic Stadium on Oct. 17, and an advertisement for Roland Hayes’ Oppenheimer Series Concert one week later, appears in the football game program. Hayes had clearly left a deep impression and made lasting relationships with the WSC community.
By 1936, tickets for Hayes’s performance were hard to come by. In a preview of his third Pullman concert, the Evergreen quoted School of Music faculty member Dean Herbert Kimbrough.
“I consider Roland Hayes one of the greatest singers of this generation, regardless of race,” said Kimbrough, whose name now adorns the main music building on the Pullman campus. “He has made two appearances at the State college during the past 10 years before enthusiastic audiences. I recommend his concert to all who enjoy fine singing.”
In 1944 as World War II raged on in Europe, Hayes was back on the Palouse, performing for the contingent of Army Air Corps members on campus, among others. Hayes had performed for troops in Europe, and planned to return to England later that year to continue his work with the U.S. soldiers. His 1944 concert was capped by an acapella version of one of the most famous spiritual songs.
“I consider Roland Hayes one of the greatest singers of this generation…I recommend his concert to all who enjoy fine singing.”
—Dean Herbert Kimbrough, School of Music faculty member, 1936
“The crowning point of his concert came when he ended by singing, “Were You There” in his clear tenor, without accompaniment from the piano,” the Evergreen recapped.
Hayes’s version of “Were you there” can be found on YouTube.
In 1959, WSC became Washington State University, and Hayes made his final visit in 1960. His concert was sponsored by the Association of American Colleges Arts Program and the Pullman Community Concert Association. His visit included a recital on Sunday and a round-table discussion on Monday.
“Roland Hayes spent of lot of time here in Bryan Hall,” Young said. “It’s exciting to look back and think about that. That building is special and that history is unique to WSU.”
Re-Exploring History will next feature jazz great Louis Armstrong.