At age 5, Robert Todd Duncan sat down at the piano and began to play. When his mother returned from the grocery store, she heard the music of Bach filling her home, but this wasn’t unusual. After all, she taught piano lessons for a living. Still, she began to cry after peeking through the doorway to see who was playing. The pianist was her son, who had never had a single lesson.
In the years that followed, there would be many other stories about her son—stories of musical greatness, of breaking color barriers, of students and concerts around the world, of civil rights triumphs.
This month, some of those stories will no doubt be told once again as Duncan is inducted into the Gallery of Great Black Kentuckians on February 22 and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame on February 23. And once again, he will be the first. This time, he is the first operatic performer to be inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.
Duncan has many more firsts to his name. In 1935, he was the first Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, chosen by George Gershwin himself. He was the first to persuade the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., to waive its segregation seating policy, refusing to perform at a theater where he himself could not purchase a ticket and not be relegated to a Colored Only section. He was the first African American to perform a nonethnic-specific role in a major American opera house when he made his debut with the New York City Opera in 1945. He was the first president of the Washington Performing Arts Society.
Although he opened many doors for African Americans, his performances, artistry, interpretation, and teaching is how Duncan should be remembered, according to Gail Robinson-Oturu, chair of the Department of Music at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, and author of the Ph.D. dissertation The Life and Legacy of Todd Duncan: A Biographical Study. Oturu is Duncan’s official biographer.
“He aspired to be a musician and a scholar,” says Oturu, “and he accomplished both…He did not like being looked at as a politician or a civil rights activist, although he was. Somehow he won artistic hearts and still maintained his sense of dignity. That was the way he chose to fight racism. He never chose to speak political views from the stage. He would just refuse to sing. He was a master interpreter of music, a master teacher and performer whose artistry and principle laid a solid foundation for many to follow and gave inspiration to many.”
Born in Danville and raised mostly in Somerset, Duncan’s career took him around the world and spanned seven decades. He was also a beloved teacher. In fact, on the day he died at age 95, a student with his accompanist came to Duncan’s home for a lesson.
And Duncan remained a student of music himself. Asked when he stopped studying, he told Oturu, “My dear, I have never stopped.”
“Duncan was 91 years old at that time,” she recalls. “He was visually impaired, but he told me he had someone who came to read to him. He always studied. That was important to him—the intellect and artistry of the music, the depth of music. He worked to get the most infinitesimal meaning and to convey that without any trickery. That’s why he was so loved. He always sought the truth in music.”
THE ROBERT TODD DUNCAN STORY
Feb. 12, 1903
Born Danville, Kentucky
Music instructor at Howard University
June 23, 1934
Married Gladys J. Jackson
First opera appearance with Aeolian Opera in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana
Oct. 10, 1935
Opened as Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on Broadway
Performs at the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt
Leads successful strike on the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., to end segregated performances of Porgy and Bess
Oct. 15, 1941
Sings in the first integrated performance held at Centre College, Kentucky
First African American to perform with the New York City Opera. He performed the role of Tonio in Pagliacci.
Performance tour of 22 Latin American countries. When he was refused hotel accommodations in Venezuela, it caused an international incident and the country’s Congress made discrimination a crime.
First black concert artist invited to perform in Australia
Unchained Melody from movie Unchained nominated for Academy Award
Sings at the Inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson
Feb. 28, 1998
Died at his home in Washington, D.C.
DUNCAN, JUDDS, HAMPTON ENTERING KENTUCKY MUSIC HALL OF FAME
Robert Todd Duncan is one of nine Kentucky performers who will be inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame this month. Located at Renfro Valley, the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame & Museum honors Kentuckians who have made significant contributions to the music industry.
According to Robert Lawson, executive director, the 2006 inductees represent six genres of music. In addition to Duncan, they are Sam Bush, founder and leader of the New Grass Revival; John Conlee, who had 19 songs reach the Top Ten; Lionel Hampton, one of the first jazz greats; Naomi and Wynonna Judd, a mother and daughter duo known for their country harmony singing; John Jacob Niles, who wrote several classic folk songs; Dottie Rambo, known as the queen of gospel music; and Mary Travers, a member of the legendary group Peter, Paul and Mary.
To be nominated for the Hall of Fame, a performer must have been born or raised in Kentucky and have had at least 10 years in the music business, according to Lawson.
“The main thing is that you made a significant impact in music,” Lawson says. “Duncan, for example, kicked down a lot of doors for a lot of folks in addition to his own success.”
If you would like to attend the 2006 ceremony, contact the Hall of Fame at (877) 356-3263 for tickets. The ceremony will be held on February 23 in the Bluegrass Ballroom at the Lexington Center.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: LEARN ABOUT THE GALLERY OF GREAT BLACK KENTUCKIANS
For information on the Gallery of Great Black Kentuckians and an expanded version of his timeline, click here: Robert Todd Duncan