Sunday, February 2, 2014
McHenry Boatwright could sing. Man, could he sing! If you were to typecast this young man from Tennille, Georgia, with his tall frame and handsome rock and roll star looks, you would swear he would have been a "doo wopper" of the fabulous fifties. You would be wrong. This young man from Washington County catapulted himself to the top of the music world, not as a member of a pop vocal group, but as one of the leading baritone-bass opera singers in America.
McHenry Boatwright - he was once called "Mac Henry Boatright" - was born on Leap Day, February 29, 1920. The youngest son of Levi and Lillie Boatright, Mac first lived in a home at 112 South Church Street in Tennille. Levi, a switchman in the rail yards in Tennille, was out of work when the Great Depression struck in 1929. Mac's mother Lillie helped to support the family by working as a cook in a private home. Mac's siblings Valeria, Annie, Levi J., Ruth, and Grover later lived at 418 N. Smith Street in the railroad town.
By the age of seven, McHenry's interest in music had manifested itself in the sanctuary of St. James A.M.E. Church. A talented piano player, the young man's future seemed to be not so bright in the waning South, which had been stripped of her cotton and railroad fortunes. His older sister, recognizing that her brother's chance for musical success could only come in the culture rich northeastern states, summoned McHenry to come to Boston and join her. So, McHenry left T.J. Elder school and the only world he ever knew and moved to Boston at the age of twelve.
In making a choice between high school and playing jazz music, Boatright chose the latter, but completed his school studies at night. To pay for his tuition at the New England Conservatory of Music, McHenry worked as a cab driver, elevator operator and other jobs. Near the end of his studies at the conservatory, McHenry decided to major in voice. To pay for his voice lessons, McHenry tutored other students in the art of singing.
McHenry Boatright's first real success came in a performance of Berlioz's oratorio, "The Damnation of Faust," accompanied by the Boston Symphony. His big break came in 1953 at the Chicagoland Music Festival. An overnight star at the age of thirty three, McHenry was chosen the best of nearly two thousand hopeful participants. That outstanding performance led to an appearance on "Chicago Theatre of the Air," and eventually a national solo on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town."
It was as the New England Opera Theater where McHenry was discovered by the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, only eighteen months his senior, and invited to sing with Bernstein's New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1956, Boatwright sung the lead role in Clarence Cameron White's "Ouanga at the Metropolitan Opera House in a performance sponsored by the National Negro Opera Foundation.
In the early 1960s, McHenry Boatright sang the role of "Crown," a tough stevedore in the first stereo recording of George and Ira Gerswhin's "Porgy and Bess."
In 1974, Boatwright returned home to his old school in Tennille. He stopped in on his way to a performance in Atlanta. People from all over the county filled the auditorium to hear one of the county's most famous sons.
Late in his life, McKinley married Ruth James, who was the only sibling of the legendary musician Duke Ellington. Duke and Ruth were inseparable. They traveled together and some say Ruth reduced the likelihood of Duke's many girlfriends bickering with each other. Ruth's life was remarkable in her own right. After graduating from Columbia University in 1939, she studied and taught in Europe. While she was in France, she met and developed a close relationship with the immortal singer Josephine Baker. In 1941, Ellington asked Ruth to manage his business. She accepted and took care of his business affairs for more than half a century. McHenry sung the eulogy song at Ellington's funeral in 1974. In 1982, Boatwright aided his wife in managing his brother in law's tribute Sacred Concerts in New York and London.
Among Boatwright's most celebrated performances were those with the Schola Cantorum of New York, the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops, the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra along with concerts in Carnegie Hall. Among his most cherished awards were two from the Marion Anderson Foundation and the National Federation of Music Clubs.
McHenry Boatright died of cancer on November 5, 1994. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City. His wife Ruth died on March 6, 2004.