KENNETH SPENCER    American Basso (1911-1964)

Kenneth Lee Spencer was an African-American opera singer and actor who was known for his basso voice. His specialty was Spirituals, American Ballads, and classical music, as well as French, German, Italian, Russian and Hebrew folk songs in their original language.

Kenneth Spencer was born April 25, 1911, in Los Angeles, California to William and Emma Spencer. He attended Roosevelt High School and took private vocal lessons. He performed in school plays and operas, and sang for churches and civic groups throughout Los Angeles.

Kenneth Spencer's first major solo appearance was at the Hollywood Bowl in 1930. In 1931, he began hosting a series or radio shows in San Francisco and eventually caught the attention of the tenor Roland Hayes who helped him to get a scholarship at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Spencer married his first wife, Dorothy Fischer in San Francisco in 1932 (they divorced in 1948).

In 1938, after graduation from the Eastman School, Spencer traveled and performed as Joe in "Showboat"with the St. Louis Opera Company. On July 4th that same year, he performed in the new opera "Gettysburg"] at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles. Commissioned by the Federal Music Project, the performance was broadcast nationally over NBC’s Blue Radio Network. Spencer also sang when the opera had its premier at the Hollywood Bowl on September 23rd, 1938. He then moved to New York and secured a standing engagement singing at the storied New York City nightclub, Cafe Society, where he befriended many notable African Americans.

In 1940, Spencer was the understudy for Paul Robeson in the short-lived [note hyphen] Broadway musical John Henry. [Ital.] He made his professional recital debut in 1941 at New York City's Town Hall, and six years later, he performed at Carnegie Hall. In 1943Spencer starred in the MGM films, Cabin in the Sky [Ital.] and Bataan. [Ital.] During WWII, he organized a U.S.O. tour to entertain African American troops. In 1946 Spencer performed in the hit Broadway musical Show Boat, [Ital. and also two words] where he sang what would become his signature song, “Ol’ Man River.”

In 1949, Spencer was invited to France to perform at the International Music Festivals in Nice and Paris and received an enthusiastic response to his talents. Receiving numerous offers to perform in Europe and frustrated with the pervasive racial prejudice in the United States, he immediately moved to Paris with his fiance Josephine Levin. They were married in Paris in 1949 and eventually settled in Wuppertal, Germany in 1953. They had a son William, who was born in 1951.

Kenneth Spencer spent the next fourteen years performing in concerts, operas, and plays throughout Europe, with tours in the United States during the winter months. Spencer also appeared in the French film 'Les Joyeaux Pellerins,' (1951), and starred in a few German films; 'Mein Bruder Joshua' (1956), Gruß und Kuß vom Tegernsee" (1957), 'An Jedem Finger Zehn' (1959), and "Unser Haus in Camerun" (1961). Spencer also made a number of recordings with Columbia Masterworks Records during the fifties and sixties which consisted of classical music, spirituals, and folk songs.

Kenneth Spencer's life was tragically cut short when he died in the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 304, at Lake Pontchartrain after leaving the New Orleans International Airport, on February 25, 1964. Spencer was on his way to New York to perform at a civil rights event. He is buried at Evergreen cemetery in Los Angeles.

 

 

EARLY YEARS

Kenneth Spencer's voice hinted at greatness as early as six years, when it was described as "too rumbly or deep" for his age. While attending Roosevelt High School, Spencer determined to capitalize on the peculiar nature of his voice and cultivate it.  Spencer became an outstanding soloist and participated in dramas and operas, and with other vocalists, created the "Two-Eight" YMCA Quartet.

CAREER

Kenneth Spencer sang in concerts throughout the United States in the 1930's, starred in musicals and films during the 1940's, and performed in concerts, operas, and plays throughout Europe in the 1950's and 1960's. He made a number of recordings with Columbia Masterworks Records which consisted of classical music, spirituals, and folk songs.

OFFSTAGE

Kenneth Spencer's life was influenced by a cross cultural mix of artists, activists, and wealthy patrons who helped shaped his world view. As his career evolved, so too did his commitment to erase the stereotypes and prejudices against African American people. As a result, he became an inspiration to the next generation of African American artists.