Robert J. Price’s life was private — he seldom talked about it.
It wasn’t until two years ago, at age 91, he reached out to a California niece and nephew. He wanted them to be his heirs.
By then, his eyesight was failing. He used a walker. His family gradually began to get to know him.
Their uncle had been a musician — a really good one. The kind that is a graduate of Julliard and was a tenor soloist with the Boston Symphony. The kind that performed on Broadway — singing in “Aida” and “My Fair Lady” — and sang “Goin’ Home” for John D. Rockefeller’s memorial service in 1968.
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He lived by himself in an apartment in the ritzy Ansonia building on the Upper West side of New York City —and was the building’s last rent-controlled tenant.
The truth was he was also a Kansan — whose musical start began at Friends University when teacher Elsa Haury encouraged him in the 1940s. He was also a World War II veteran and a copy editor for Time magazine.
In a world where most people shouted their good works, Mr. Price was an introverted, curmudgeonly enigma.
He died Sept. 21 in New York City at age 93. A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Friday at the Interchurch Center Chapel in Manhattan, N.Y., whose cornerstone was laid by the nation’s only Kansas president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1958.
Mr. Price was born July 28, 1924, in Winfield. He graduated from Wellington High School in 1942 and attended Friends University for a year before serving three years in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he was stationed in the Pacific.
By the 1950s, he had become a prominent tenor in New York City. He came back to Kansas in December 1958 to sing at Friends’ Bach Festival.
“Following graduation from the Friends University School of Music in 1948, Price attended the Julliard School of Music where he received his Master of Science degree,” the Friends newsletter, University Life, reported in 1958. “Mr. Price is well versed in opera, concert and oratorio and has been heard extensively in the New York area in these fields. He has appeared with the Boston Symphony, The Oratorio Society of New York … the Toronto Opera Association and the Minneapolis Symphony.”
While at Friends, Mr. Price was a member of the Singing Quakers and won several state contests, including the national Associated Concert Bureau Auditions, which won him a a chance at singing in Carnegie Hall in New York. It would not be his last time at the Carnegie. Throughout his career, he sang there.
The New York Times said of his voice in the Messiah, “Outstanding among the soloists was Robert Price, the tenor. Not only did he have the voice for the part, capable of ringing clearly as well as flowing with lyric tenderness.”
“He was very modest, tight-lipped about what he had done,” said Mr. Price’s niece, Patricia Anne Tisdale of Santa Barbara, Calif. “I couldn’t get him to talk about it. I remember when I was a kid, we sat around listening to the radio to the Firestone Hour and he was the soloist. Later, he was on the Jack Parr Show. He was doing a lot but he didn’t have the personality to go with his talent.”
In the meantime, he was also working as a copy editor for Time magazine and as a sacred-music musician, the resident tenor at the Riverside Church, a cantor at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue and at Temple Emanu-El in Queens.
He was a member of the Professional Church Singers Association and cantor of the Church of Our Lady of Angels. He also wrote a financial newsletter for Julian Snyder’s “International Moneyline” and was a copy editor for the American Organist.
“He was a little bit of a snob — but it was because he knew so much,” Tisdale said. “He had nothing good to say about California. My brother is also a musician — but a jazz musician. He has his own recordings. But my uncle didn’t like jazz — all that jibbery jazzy stuff.
“I tried to get him to talk about Kansas. I told him I think everybody loves sunflowers. He said no, he didn’t.”
For Tisdale, she said, she wishes she would have had more time in getting to know him.
“For me, he was always this talented, cultured uncle who lived in New York,” she said. “What a shame we didn’t know each other. But he was on this different level with all that he was doing.”
Besides his niece, Mr. Price is survived by his nephew, Michael Price O’Neill of Belmont, Calif.
Memorial donations can be made in Robert J. Price’s name to Friends University, 2100 W. University Ave., Wichita, KS 67213.