American Tenor Roland Hayes

“There is a Roland Hayes, born on the red hills of Gordon County Georgia under the most crippling restrictions. At a very early age he found himself working in an iron foundry of Chattanooga Tenn. But from these red hills of Georgia, he rose to the palace of Queen Mother of Spain. From this iron foundry in Chatanooga, Tenn., he rose to the palace of King George the 5th.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Roland Hayes Biography

As the story goes, Roland Hayes, an American tenor who some considered the greatest of his time, came to Germany for a performance in 1927. In advance of his show, a newspaper published a column questioning Roland’s ability to perform German songs. When Roland took the stage, the crowd booed him. And while he would call this one of the most frightening moments of his life, he stayed calm, changed the song order, and began singing “Du bist die Ruh,” a German favorite. As he sang, the taunts turned into cheering and then to the pounding of walking sticks, which was the ultimate sign of audience approval for the time.

Roland Hayes portrait taken in 1923. He's dressed in a three piece suit and wearing a bowtie.
Roland Hayes, 1923

Roland’s experiences with racism were a norm throughout his career, especially in the beginning. When starting, he was told in the U.S. “that no one of my race would ever be accepted in music.” But the young man from Curryville, Georgia, continued performing. The feedback about potential work in the U.S. led Roland to perform in Europe, where he found success. And that success opened opportunities for him back in the U.S.

Roland achieved much stardom over the years while bringing many much joy. And as he grew in stature, he never forgot his local roots, helping other African-Americans such as Marion Anderson through performance opportunities. Later in life, Roland became a voice teacher.

He passed away at 89 in 1977.

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Sources:

Portrait of Roland taken in 1954 – Van Vechten, Carl, photographer. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2004662999/>. / “Roland Hayes by Van Vechten.” / “A Bouncy Seventy-Five: Roland Hayes, Despite His Age, Gives Concerts, Teaches and Reminisces,” New York Times, 3 June 1962, 127. / Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: April 17, 2020. Accessed:September 28, 2022. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/roland-hayes-biography. / Africa Hayes Interview: Growing up with Roland Hayes – The Schiller Institute / Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / Martin Luther King, Jr. refers to tenor Roland Hayes’s successful singing tour of Europe in his speech, “Accepting Responsibility for Your Actions” on July 26th, 1953 – The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University